I have been going back and forth whether to upload this blog post due to the current travel restrictions in the world. As I am writing this tourists can’t enter New Zealand. But we can’t let that hinder our hopeful future travel plans! So I thought this might be the perfect post for those of you that had either planned to go to New Zealand this year and can’t, or have always wanted to. We might as well spend this time planning out the perfect trip. So here I have compiled together our 4 week New Zealand South Island itinerary. It is a bit of a long one, so boil the kettle and come back with a snack. It might even be worth bookmarking to come back to for further research!
NEW ZEALAND SOUTH ISLAND TRAVEL TIPS
START YOUR TRIP IN CHRISTCHURCH. We started our road trip in Christchurch, which is the main hub of the South Island, ideal for buying supplies before setting out.
THE PEAK SEASON RUNS FROM DECEMBER TO MARCH, when the weather is the best but it is much busier. If you want to avoid the crowds try and start your trip in November, when you can enjoy the South Island before peak season. I would avoid travelling between June and October as many of the campsites are closed for the low season, and it can get rather dangerous hiking in the mountains.
DOWNLOAD WIKICAMPS AND CAMPERMATE. These were invaluable to us on our road trip. We used them everyday to find free campsites, showers and places of interest. Make sure to download them before you go.
SET OUT A BUDGET. New Zealand isn’t a cheap place to travel, so try and set out limits on spending and think about where you would like to spend more money. For us this meant not eating out at restaurants, and instead spending it on activities we had researched. Check out my New Zealand South Island Travel Costs blog post!
Please note that the currency used in this post is NZD. 1 NZD = 0.52 GBP, 1 NZD = 0.66 USD
The one thing I would stress the most is to travel New Zealand in a campervan. By travelling this way you will be able to go at your own pace, travel to lesser known places that a bus might not reach. And so many of the sights are quite out of the way in rural areas, so you would miss out on so much if you are travelling by bus. This also meant we were moving around so much more. Instead of spending 3 nights in one town, we could drive from one place to the next seeing everything along the way. This way we were seeing a new place pretty much every day! Here is a link to My Tips of Buying a Van in New Zealand, and I have also included some links below to hire companies.
Whether you are hiring a campervan or buying one, Christchurch is the main hub of the South Island. So make sure to fly into Christchurch if you are starting your road trip with the South. If you are buying, you will most likely need to spend a few days here viewing different vans and going through the buying process. If you are short on time, then hiring a van is your best bet, as you will be able to pick it up and head off to the mountains much quicker!
I really enjoyed my time in Christchurch. It is a city with a lot to offer and has many new modern buildings being built due to the devastation caused by the earthquake in 2011. It is home to some beautiful parks and gardens, and encompasses many suburbs that all offer something different.
Things To Do in Christchurch
LEARN AT THE CANTERBURY MUSEUM. The museum in Christchurch is completely free and great for a few hours of learning about the history of New Zealand and its nature.
WANDER AROUND THE BOTANICAL GARDENS. On a sunny day, the botanical gardens are the perfect place to relax on the grass or learn about the trees and plants native to New Zealand. It is located right next to the museum, so you can do both in the same afternoon!
HEAD UP TO THE CHRISTCHURCH GONDOLA. Another popular activity to do in Christchurch is to take the cable car up to the gondola. From here you get beautiful views of the city and mountains surrounding it. Although if you have your own car, you can drive up to the gondola without having to pay for the cable car!
PHOTOGRAPH SOME STREET ART. Christchurch is now well known for its street art. Walking around the centre you will notice many derelict buildings that have been empty since the earthquake in 2011. So many of these outside walls have been covered with commissioned street art, which you can easily spend a whole day trying to find them all! If you want a guide to the street art in Christchurch, check out my blog post here that I wrote when I lived there.
Where to Stay in Christchurch
AROUND THE WORLD BACKPACKERS. Now I am probably biased when I recommend this hostel, as I did work there for 6 months. But out of the hostels in the city, Around The World is the closest to the centre. With small dorm rooms and a really great outside area, I think this is one of the best that you can find!
DAYS 1-2 – LAKE CLEARWATER
Distance from Christchurch to Lake Clearwater: 145km
Duration: 2 Hours
Just a short drive away from the starting point is Lake Clearwater. Not a lot of travellers seem to stop here, but as we didn’t really have any time constraints we made this our first stop. You won’t get any phone service here, but you will be rewarded with beautiful lake views and an extremely peaceful atmosphere. I loved waking up to a view of a lake out of the window. There aren’t any amenities here, so make sure to stock up on food and water before leaving Christchurch!
Things To Do Around Lake Clearwater
HIKE UP MOUNT SUNDAY. You might think this is quite an obscure place to begin our road trip, but as massive Lord Of The Rings fans we just had to go. The reason we went to Lake Clearwater was to hike up Mount Sunday, which is the mountain they used to film Edoras in Rohan in the second film. It is a short hike which everyone could do, just 30 minutes one way, but it is very windy at the top. So don’t go standing too close to the edge!
WALK THE LAKE CLEARWATER CIRCUIT. For a long but scenic walk, the Lake Clearwater circuit is a great option on a sunny day. It is a 10km loop track around the lake, and takes about 3 hours.
HIKE UP MOUNT GUY. We didn’t attempt this one ourselves as it is a steep hike to the summit. Mount Guy is 1319m high, and takes about 3 hours to get to the top, but if you are wanting to start your road trip with some long mountain hikes this is a great option to go for.
Where to Stay at Lake Clearwater
LAKE CAMP 1. Whilst there aren’t any free campsites on Lake Clearwater itself, just a minutes drive down the road there are two right by each other at Lake Camp! Both are free, but Camp 1 is suitable for non self-contained vehicles as well as self-contained. It has amazing views of the lake, but does get pretty windy in the evening!
LAKE CAMP 2. So for our second night here we moved to Lake Camp 2. It was much more sheltered by trees so therefore a lot less windy. I preferred this camp mainly due to the wind factor, but both campsites have just as good views as the other!
DAY 3 – LAKE CLEARWATER TO ARUNDEL
Distance from Lake Clearwater to Arundel: 68km
Duration: 1 Hour
Just a short drive for the day from Lake Clearwater to Arundel. We spent most of the morning hiking up Mount Barrosa, so were glad for a chilled afternoon. If you need to stock up on supplies make your way to Geraldine, and then head back to Arundel to camp for the night.
HIKE UP MOUNT BARROSA. Another worthwhile hike in the Lake Clearwater area is the Mount Barrosa track. Just a short drive away from Lake Camp is this 2.5 hour trek to the top. It does get quite steep in parts, but is worth the effort!
Where to Stay Near Arundel
ARUNDEL BRIDGE CAMPGROUND. Another free campsite for the night, that is available for both self-contained and non self-contained vehicles! It is a large field, with spaces for many vans. It does only have one toilet, but as it is free this is what you come to expect.
DAY 4 – ARUNDEL TO FAIRLIE
Distance from Arundel to Fairlie: 61km
Duration: 1 Hour
If you are eager to get to the famous lakes of Tekapo and Pukaki, then I feel that the area around Geraldine and Fairlie could be skipped. But we didn’t want to rush into the trip too quickly, so if you have time make sure to spend a few days in this area. The roads are so quiet, it really is a joy to drive around here.
Things To Do Around Arundel & Fairlie
EXPLORE PEEL FOREST PARK. This scenic reserve is home to a range of walks differing in length and difficulty. But if you just want to spend the morning here I would recommend walking 10 minutes from the car park to The Big Tree. Then take the path to Acland Falls, a 35 minute walk that will get you a little sweaty and will finish with a pretty waterfall. This park is only a 10 minute drive from the previous nights campsite, so ideal if you want to explore for a few hours after breakfast.
EAT A PIE FROM THE FAMOUS FAIRLIE BAKEHOUSE. You can’t pass through Fairlie without making a stop at the famous bakehouse. Because of this it is very busy, but so worth the queue. I didn’t find a pie as good for the rest of the trip!
Where to Stay Near Fairlie
LAKE OPUHA – BENNETTS ROAD. There aren’t any free campsites in Fairlie itself, but if you drive 15 minutes North to Lake Opuha there are a couple of large sites. They overlook a beautiful lake, and have much nicer toilets than the previous few campsites! If you are in need of Wifi, Mackenzie Community Library in Fairlie has very friendly staff that will let you sit and use the internet for a few hours.
DAY 5 – FAIRLIE TO LAKE PUKAKI
Distance from Fairlie to Lake Pukaki: 100km
Duration: 1 Hour 15 Minutes
After breakfast, take the short 40 minute drive to Lake Tekapo where you can spend the day exploring. It is a very sought after area with tourists, so expect coach loads of people to arrive when you are there! Tekapo is a small town so I would only advise to spend the day here and move onto Pukaki for the night.
Things To Do Around Lake Tekapo & Lake Pukaki
TAKE PHOTOS OF THE LAKE. If you only do one thing in Tekapo, make sure it is spending time on the shores of the lake! It is a beautiful scene with snow covered mountains in the background, and if you happen to be there from mid-November to December you will be able to capture the colourful Lupin flowers too! We were here at that time, and didn’t even realise how lucky we were to see them when they were flowering.
VISIT THE MT JOHN OBSERVATORY. To get the best views of the lake you need to head to the summit of Mount John. You can either take the Mount John Summit Circuit Track from town by foot, which will take 1 hour and 30 minutes. Or you can pay $8 to drive on the private road up to the observatory. Once you are at the top you can take cover from the wind in the cafe or walk the short 30 minute Summit Circuit Track around the top of the mountain.
VISIT THE CHURCH OF THE GOOD SHEPHERD. If you have seen photos of the lake, then you will most probably have seen a few with a church in the foreground. This church is a popular photography spot, and one you can’t miss from a walk by the lakeside.
Where to Stay at Lake Pukaki
LAKE PUKAKI FREEDOM CAMPING 1. Lake Tekapo doesn’t offer much in the form of free campsites, so I would recommend driving 40 minutes to Lake Pukaki. Here there are an abundance of free campsites! Camp 1 is the one we decided on, where there are a number of clean toilets, space for hundreds of vans and lake access. If there are spaces at the first level of the campsite camp here, otherwise the other levels get very rocky! Make sure to take a walk through the trees to get the best view of Lake Pukaki. From here you can see the mountains of Mount Cook National Park, and the sky at night is so clear that you get breathtaking views of the stars.
DAY 6 – LAKE PUKAKI TO MOUNT COOK NATIONAL PARK & TWIZEL
Distance from Lake Pukaki to Mount Cook National Park: 58km
Duration: 45 Minutes
Aim for a relatively early start to your morning and make your way to the Mount Cook National Park, just 45 minutes drive from the campsite! Whilst en route make sure to stop of at the Lake Pukaki lookout for incredible views of the snow-topped mountains. The drive up to the National Park was without doubt the best of the trip. Driving through the winding valley with endless mountains around you, it was hard to keep our eyes on the road!
Things To Do at Mount Cook National Park
WALK THE HOOKER VALLEY TRACK. If you are in New Zealand, you really can’t miss walking one of the tracks in the National Park. We opted for the Hooker Valley Track, which is one of the most popular. It is an easy 3 hour return walk, and ends at Hooker Lake, which is most often speckled with icebergs. We experienced very strong winds on this day, so were extremely glad for our windproof jackets!
HIKE A FEW OF THE NUMEROUS OTHER TRACKS. If you aren’t interested in Hooker Valley Track, or you want to tackle a few walks in the same day, head to the DOC website for all the walks there are in the area. We constantly used this website as we found it so helpful to decide on which track to take. It tells you the difficulty, distance and how to follow the track. There are so many varying in difficulty in the Mount Cook area, but always make sure to tell someone where you are going.
Distance from Mount Cook National Park to Twizel: 65km
Duration: 45 Minutes
We hadn’t really planned ahead for our day in Mount Cook National Park, so after completing the Hooker Valley Track decided to find a free campsite for the night. Unsurprisingly, there are none in Mount Cook Village. So if you are wanting to explore the National Park for a few days, make sure to book ahead. There is a YHA hostel in the village, where you are looking at $36 for an 8 bed dorm room, or $180 for a double private room.
Where to Stay in Twizel
LAKE POAKA CAMPSITE. As there were no free campsites at Mount Cook Village, we decided to drive back down towards Lake Pukaki, and carried onto Twizel for the night. We found this campsite a little outside the town, and were thankful for a peaceful night, parked next to a small lake. We were glad to have driven away from the National Park after our hike, as it meant we could cover more area the next day. Twizel town itself is also a great place to stock up on food and water!
DAY 7 – TWIZEL TO OAMARU
Distance from Twizel to Oamaru: 145km
Duration: 1 Hour 45 Minutes
After a slightly more active day yesterday, today there will be a little more driving to make your way back to the East Coast. It felt like we were a little off the beaten track here, as I can imagine many holiday goers in New Zealand skip these lesser known parts and go straight for the big tourist attractions of Queenstown and Milford Sound. But if you have the time, ensure that you include this area into your itinerary. Lonely Planet calls Oamaru the steampunk capital of the world, so we felt we had to check it out!
Things To Do Around Twizel & Oamaru
EXPLORE THE CLAY CLIFFS NEAR OMARAMA. Just 20 minutes outside the town of Twizel are the Clay Cliffs. You will have to pay a fee of $5 to use the gravelly private road, but at the end you will feel like you have driven to a different planet. As you can see from the images below, it really is like something from Mars. You can explore as much as you like through these cliffs!
WATCH THE PENGUINS HEAD TO THEIR NESTS WITH BLUE PENGUIN COLONY. The main attraction in Oamaru is the penguins. Every night penguins wade ashore to their nests near the waterfront, with as many as 250 being seen in November and December! You can pay to get a good spot, just make sure to wrap up warm for the night.
WANDER AROUND THE VICTORIAN STREETS. The reason we came to Oamaru was that it was named the Steampunk capital of the world by Lonely Planet. And after having spent a morning wandering around, there are a lot of Victorian buildings and Steampunk elements. It is a very sleepy town, and is greeted by a couple coach loads of tourists each day.
Where to Stay in Oamaru
EDEN ST CAR PARK. The only free campsite in town is located in a car park, which is often the case when you want to stay in a town in New Zealand. But it did have a flushing toilet that was open until 8pm, and it was quiet throughout the night.
EMPIRE HOTEL BACKPACKERS. If you fancy splashing out on a hostel for the night, we saw this one whilst walking through town. At only $17 per night, it is a good opportunity to cook yourselves a nice meal, use the Wifi and charge all your devices!
DAY 8 – OAMARU TO KAITIKI POINT LIGHTHOUSE
Distance from Oamaru to Kaitiki: 45km
Duration: 35 Minutes
A nice easy day for driving, as Kaitiki is only a short way down the East Coast. But along the way are some must-see memorable stops!
Things To Do Around Oamaru & Kaitiki
PHOTOGRAPH THE MOERAKI BOULDERS. You have no doubt come across these iconic boulders when researching New Zealand. They are scattered along the beach, some on their own and others in clusters. They appear when the waves erode away at the cliffs, frequently uncovering them, there used to be many more than there are now. This is a great opportunity to walk along the beach and photograph these boulders, plus there is a cafe in the car park too!
SPOT WILDLIFE AT KAITIKI POINT LIGHTHOUSE. After just another short 10 minutes drive along the coast, you will reach the lighthouse. From here you can take a short walk past the lighthouse to the cliff edge where you should be able to spot seals on the beaches below. It really is entertaining watching the seals play with each other on the beach and enjoying the sea.
Where to Stay Near Kaitiki
KAITIKI BEACH ROADSIDE. A night at Kaitiki Beach Roadside is bound to leave you feeling happy and well-rested. It is a free campsite, located just off the road but situated right by the beach. There are a limited number of spaces, but with clean toilets and the option to sit on the beach, it is a winner!
DAYS 9-10 – DUNEDIN & OTAGO PENINSULA
Distance from Kaitiki to Dunedin: 67km
Duration: 53 Minutes
Dunedin is our first city stop off on the road trip, and I would advise spending two days in the area. Not only does the city itself have much to offer, but there is also lots to explore on the peninsula adjoining it. It is now very much a student city, but it has a rich history and many things to do to fill the days. It is also home to the steepest residential street in the world, Baldwin Street, which I was way too scared to walk up.
Things to Do in Dunedin
LEARN AT THE OTAGO MUSEUM. There are two museums in Dunedin, both offering much different collections. The Otago Museum focuses on nature and science, and holds one of the largest museum collections in New Zealand. If I remember correctly, all of the museums in New Zealand are free. But there are sometimes different exhibitions that you have to pay for.
WANDER AROUND THE OTAGO SETTLERS MUSEUM. The settlers museum was my preferred out of the two. They had an incredible collection of classic cars, old technology and items from the home. It focuses on the history of the settlers that came to Dunedin from Scotland, and how their lives evolved with the changing times.
WALK THE ALLAN’S BEACH LOOP TRACK. I feel that there is so much to explore in the Otago Peninsula that it would take days and days. What with you having to double back on yourselves to get to other parts of the area, and a lot of the roads are gravelly and bumpy. So we just ended up spending a long morning here! We first walked this 1 hour loop track, where we reached a lookout over Allan’s Beach, and walked through fields of newborn lambs.
EXPLORE SANDFLY BAY. Sandfly Bay is a popular walk to take on the peninsula, it leads you down large sand dunes onto a beach where you may be lucky enough to spot penguins and seals. It is a 1 hour 30 minute return track, with it getting a little tricky climbing the sand dunes on the way back!
Where to Stay in Dunedin
THOMAS BURNS ST CAR PARK. This car park is one of a few free campsites in the city, and for this reason it does get full pretty early in the afternoon! So I would advise parking here as soon as you arrive in Dunedin. You will have to pay a fee to park there in the day, but as soon as the parking charges end for the night you can stay there for free. It is well equipped with portaloos, and a sink, and is surprisingly pretty quiet at night too.
DAY 11 – DUNEDIN TO CATLINS FOREST PARK
Distance from Dunedin to Catlins Forest Park: 161km
Duration: 2 Hours 30 Minutes
Before leaving Dunedin, make sure you are all stocked up on water, food and petrol, as once you enter the Catlins Forest Park these things may be difficult to get hold of! The Catlins is an area that is often left out of many travellers itinerary. But I think this makes it all the more beautiful. The area is filled with so many hidden gems, and feels wild and rich with nature.
Things to Do in Catlins Forest Park
GO TO NUGGET POINT. If the only thing we saw in the whole of The Catlins was Nugget Point, I would have left feeling happy. This was one of the most spectacular sights throughout our whole trip in New Zealand! From the car park it is a short walk past the lighthouse to a view point over the edge of the cliffs. Scattered in the sea are these huge rocks, like nuggets! I will include a photo below, as it will do a much better job of describing it than me!
VISIT JACK’S BLOWHOLE. We saw Jack’s Blowhole on the map, and even though we didn’t really know what it was, we had to go and see for ourselves. So after a 20 minute walk we reached the blowhole. Which turned out to be a massive 55m deep hole in the ground, but unfortunately there weren’t any rough waves blowing up water into the hole. It was a little underwhelming, but of course Jack had to get a photo with the sign!
PURAKANUI FALLS. The last stop of the day was Purakanui Falls, reached by a short walk through a forest. It is a pretty waterfall, but there are so many others in New Zealand that they all start to blend together.
Where to Stay in Catlins Forest Park
PAPATOWAI CAMPSITE. Since there aren’t any free campsite in the area, we opted for this DOC one. It is only $8 per person, and had a clean toilet block as well as a kitchen. So we were able to cook inside, without the wind disrupting our gas stove.
DAY 12 – CATLINS FOREST PARK TO RIVERTON
Distance from Catlins Forest Park to Riverton: 111km
Duration: 1 Hour 30 Minutes
Another day brings more exploring of the Catlins Forest Park, ending up in a campsite outside of Invercargill just for the night. There is so much to see in The Catlins, that having a campervan really does pay off here. It makes it so easy to drive to each of the stop offs, explore and then drive to the next, without having to worry where you are going to sleep at night.
Things to Do Driving from Catlins Forest Park to Riverton
STOP OFF AT LAKE WILKIE. Just a short distance away from the campsite is Lake Wilkie. There is a pleasant boardwalk track here, it is a 20 minute return loop that takes you through the woods and the lake. It is extremely reflective dark water!
MCLEAN FALLS. If you only visit one waterfall in The Catlins, it should be this one! A 20 minute track will lead you to the 22m high falls, which are often described as the most spectacular in the area.
HAVE LUNCH AT PORPOISE BAY. Driving to Porpoise Bay you will get to experience the rugged coastline of The Catlins. Have a spot of lunch on the beach if the weather permits, and try and spot some dolphins. We were lucky enough to see them, and some other travellers even got in the sea with them!
Where to Stay in Riverton
APARIMA BRIDGE RIVER BANK. We had originally planned to spend some time in Invercargill, but driving through it in the afternoon, we decided to move on. It really didn’t seem like it offered much at all, and so we spent the night at a campsite near Riverton. It is a large site, but I must warn you there were so many bugs! Both sandflies and mosquitos, so I woke up with lots of bites.
DAY 13 – RIVERTON TO TE ANAU
Distance from Riverton to Te Anau: 148km
Duration: 1 Hour 45 Minutes
Te Anau is the gateway to the famous Milford Sound. So we made our way slowly to Te Anau, stopping off at roadsides to take photos and have lunch, ready for our cruise in a few days. Whilst many people head this way for a Milford Sound cruise, there are also many other reasons why tourists come here.
Things To Do in Te Anau
HIKE THE KEPLER TRACK. One of the main reasons backpackers come to Te Anau, is to hike one of New Zealand’s Great Walks. There are three in the area; the Milford Track, the Routeburn Track and the Kepler Track, all of which are multi-day hikes.
ENJOY THE LAKE. We spent our evening in Te Anau enjoying some fish and chips by the lake. As we had only booked one night in this town we didn’t get a chance to do much else, but we appreciated our evening looking out over the calm lake.
Where to Stay in Te Anau
LAKE FRONT BACKPACKERS. Unfortunately there are no free or DOC campsites in Te Anau, so there is no choice but to stay in a hostel. We spent the night at Lake Front Backpackers, which was a really well equipped, cheap hostel. It is situated right by the lake, with just a short walk to the supermarket and centre of town.
DAY 14 – TE ANAU TO CASCADE CREEK CAMPSITE (NEAR MILFORD SOUND)
Distance from Te Anau to Cascade Creek Campsite: 75km
Duration: 1 Hour
Having booked a morning cruise at Milford Sound for the next day, we wanted to camp as close as possible to avoid driving for 2 hours very early in the morning. So we spent the day slowly driving to the closest campsite to Milford Sound. This is Cascade Creek Campsite, which is a DOC campsite and costs $15 per person. It is a very large site, with numerous toilets dotted around, the only downside was the amount of sandflies. However I don’t think you can avoid them on the West Coast.
Things To Do Around Cascade Creek Campsite
STOP AT THE MIRROR LAKES. 15 minutes before arriving at the campsite, you will come across Mirror Lakes. A worthy stop off, with a short boardwalk where you can see the reflective lake, as the name suggests.
TAKE A WALK THROUGH THE WOODS. Cascade Creek campsite is surrounded by a forest, so why not take a short walk! We actually found a few Keas in the woods, so we spent some time watching them!
DAY 15 – MILFORD SOUND AND LUMSDEN
Distance from Cascade Creek Campsite to Milford Sound: 43km
Duration: 45 Minutes
The only reason tourists head to Milford Sound is to go on one of the cruises that take you through the Fiordlands. The town of Milford Sound itself is very small and not worth a stop, but people flock from across the globe to see the cascading waterfalls and dramatic peaks. We booked onto the morning cruise, which is why we wanted to make sure we camped as close as possible the previous night. The road to Milford Sound is steep and windy, so make sure to go slow!
BOOK ONTO A MILFORD SOUND CRUISE. The cruise we opted for was the 2 hour Milford Sound Cruise with Go Orange, which came to $59 per person. The boat itself was a nice size and wasn’t too overcrowded. There was more than enough room on the viewing deck, which is the ideal place to view the Fiordlands. And if it got a bit cold, there was even a cafe area with gorgeous hot chocolates.
I think any cruise you book onto will be a good one, as the views you get of Milford Sound will all be the same. And that is what you are there for at the end of the day! It really was an area like no other I have ever seen. The boat cruised through incredible views of the surrounding mountains, with unbelievably high waterfalls hitting the water below with so much power. And we even saw a group of seals playing around in the rocks!
A Milford Sound cruise really is a must-do when you are in New Zealand! You can also book a tour from Te Anau or Queenstown if you don’t want to drive to Milford Sound yourself. Although these do take 8 and 12 hours respectively.
PARKING TIP…Unless you want to pay an extortionate $10 per hour for parking, try and grab a space at the Deepwater Basin Road free car park! From there runs a free shuttle bus to the harbour.
Distance from Milford Sound to Lumsden: 194km
Duration: 2 Hours 30 Minutes
Where to Stay in Lumsden
LUMSDEN FREEDOM CAMPING. After our morning cruise we decided to drive all the way back along the road towards Te Anau and headed towards Queenstown. We stopped for the night at a free campsite in the town of Lumsden, which is surprisingly home to one of our favourite campsites of the trip! It is essentially a car park based in the centre of the town, but the facilities that are in place there are great! There are clean flushing toilets, a sink for washing dishes and even free Wifi from the library across the road. All of the locals seemed happy to have us there, there was a really welcoming atmosphere.
DAYS 16-17 – QUEENSTOWN
Distance from Lumsden to Queenstown: 107km
Duration: 1 Hour 20 Minutes
No trip to New Zealand is complete without a few nights in Queenstown. It is extremely popular with tourists of all ages. Young backpackers head there for the adrenalin and nightlife, but there is so much more to do besides that. It is a beautiful town surrounded by mountains and overlooks Lake Wakatipu. For these reasons it is a little more expensive than other areas in New Zealand. If you are looking for free parking try and get a space at Hallenstein Street, from which it is just a short walk to the centre of town.
Things To Do in Queenstown
HIKE THE QUEENSTOWN HILL WALKING TRACK. For a quick but tough hike make your way to the top of Queenstown Hill. You will be rewarded with 360 degree views of Queenstown and the surrounding mountains. It is a 2 hour return trip, perfect for an invigorating morning! Read my blog post on a detailed guide to the track.
EAT A FAMOUS FERGBURGER. Did you even go to Queenstown if you didn’t get a Ferburger?! This seems like the general consensus with tourists in Queenstown. There is a constant queue for this famous burger restaurant, but they have perfected their service so you don’t have to wait too long. Oh and the burgers are pretty tasty too!
HEAD TO THE TOP OF BOB’S PEAK. You can take a cable car up to the top of Bob’s Peak, where you can get the best view of Queenstown. You can even luge back down from the Skyline Gondola!
GO TO ARROWTOWN. Just a short 20 minute drive from Queenstown is Arrowtown! It is an old gold-mining town which is now home to some charming cafes and shops, and even an iconic Lord of The Rings filming set. There are also some great hikes to do in the area.
DO A BUNGEE JUMP. Queenstown is THE place in New Zealand for bungee jumping. It is home to the world’s first commercial bungee jumping site, so what better place to do it! Whilst we didn’t partake in any adrenalin-pumping activities in Queenstown, I am sure it would be a memorable moment of your trip.
SKYDIVE! If bungee jumping isn’t for you, then maybe think about a skydive instead! I think if I were to choose one to do, it would be a skydive. But the thought of jumping out of an aeroplane is truly terrifying!
Where to Stay in Queenstown
12 MILE DELTA CAMPSITE. There are an abundance of hostels in Queenstown, but unfortunately there are no campsites in the town itself. So I suggest you find some cheap parking to explore the town in the day and then drive out to your campsite in the evening. Just a 15 minute drive out of Queenstown is this DOC Campsite. It is $15 per person, but has toilets with a sink and beautiful views over the lake.
LITTLE STONY CREEK. After our second day exploring Queenstown, we drove a bit further out to our campsite towards Glenorchy, as we would be heading that way the next morning. It is a 40 minute drive from Queenstown, and is a little spot situated just off the road, with spaces for around 3 or 4 vans. Unfortunately there are no toilets, but it was fine for just one night.
DAY 18 – QUEENSTOWN TO GLENORCHY & WANAKA
Distance from Queenstown to Glenorchy: 46km
Duration: 50 Minutes
Glenorchy is a small, slow-paced town just 50 minutes North of Queenstown. The drive there is a dramatic winding road, with plenty of lay-bys for you to pull over and photograph the scenery. We only spent half a day there and then continued on with our journey to Wanaka, but it was still a worthwhile town to visit.
Things To Do in Glenorchy
WALK THE GLENORCHY LAGOON SCENIC WALKWAY. We spent our morning in Glenorchy walking this 1 hour loop track that takes you around the lagoon on flat boardwalks. It is doable for all fitness levels, and is dotted with benches that have been placed in the perfect spot to take in the views.
WANDER AROUND THE GLENORCHY WATERFRONT RESERVE. Make sure to also take a slow walk through the Waterfront Reserve to experience the calm waters of Lake Wakatipu. Here also sits the red boat shed that is very popular with photographers.
Distance from Glenorchy to Wanaka: 113km
Duration: 1 Hour 45 Minutes
After a peaceful morning in Glenorchy we decided to continue our journey onto the popular town of Wanaka. We were going to spend a few days in Wanaka, so after a long day of exploring, doing laundry and driving we headed to our campsite for the night.
Where to Stay in Wanaka
RED BRIDGE CAMPGROUND. This campsite is the only free one in Wanaka, so it does get very busy! It is located 15 minutes outside of the town, and only has three portaloos to cater for 100 vans. Despite the large number of vans that camp here, it is still quiet at night and most people tend to leave by early morning.
DAYS 19-20 – WANAKA AND LAKE HAWEA
In my opinion Wanaka is a slower-paced, quieter and more scenic version of Queenstown. Which to me are all good things! There are so many more adventurous hikes, and the town surrounds the stunning Lake Wanaka. I would even say that it was one of my favourite towns in New Zealand. While there isn’t an abundance of activities to do, the atmosphere makes you want to slow down and just take in the scenery.
Things To Do in Wanaka
TAKE A PHOTO OF THE FAMOUS WANAKA TREE. I am sure you have seen photos of that famous lonesome tree sitting in Lake Wanaka. It is now a popular tourist attraction and to be honest is a little overhyped.
HIKE UP ROYS PEAK. For a challenging but rewarding hike, consider the uphill trek to Roys Peak. It is a 6 hour, 16km return track, with all of the way up being a constant steep incline. There are only a couple of short flatter sections, so it does require a moderate level of fitness. But I managed to do it, although I think my hiking poles did most of the work! There is an iconic viewpoint 30 minutes from the summit, with incredible views of Lake Wanaka below. This was my most challenging day of the road trip, but one of my highlights too!
TREK MOUNT IRON. For a shorter and easier day walk, take the Mount Iron loop track. It is a 1 hour 30 minute round trip, with panoramic views over the Pisa Range at the top.
HIKE THE ROB ROY GLACIER TRACK. The Rob Roy track is another popular walk in Wanaka. It is a 10km track, but is suitable for all abilities. You will cross swing bridges, and pass views of waterfalls, glaciers and rock cliffs.
Distance from Wanaka to Lake Hawea: 17km
Duration: 20 Minutes
LAKE HAWEA FREEDOM CAMPING. After a long day hiking to the top of Roys Peak, we decided to drive just a short way out of Wanaka to camp for the night. We chose Lake Hawea and it turned out to be one of the nicest campsites of our trip. There isn’t much in the way of facilities, just one drop toilet. But the views across the lake were just incredible! It is only a small site, just space for around 5 vans, which makes it so much more peaceful and tranquil.
DAY 21 – LAKE HAWEA TO PARINGA
Distance from Lake Hawea to Paringa: 186km
Duration: 2 Hours 30 Minutes
After a pretty tiring previous day hiking up a mountain, we decided to take the day a little slower. We thought we would drive and see how far we felt like going. We were going in the direction of Fox Glacier, and ended up staying at a free campsite near Paringa for the night. The road from Lake Hawea to Haast is one you have to experience, surrounded by mountains and lakes it will definitely be hard to keep your eyes on the road!
Things To Do from Lake Hawea to Paringa
VISIT THE BLUE POOLS. Take a short stop off past Makarora at the Blue Pools. It is a short 15 minute walk across swing bridges and boardwalks to the waters that are icy blue.
STOP OFF AT THUNDER CREEK FALLS. After another 20 minutes driving along the road make sure to stop off at Thunder Creek Falls. It is a short walk away from the car park, and was one of the most impressive waterfalls in the area.
MAKE A STOP AT KNIGHTS POINT. Another hour along the road you will pass Knights Point. Stop off here for an incredible viewpoint over the West Coast. It is similar to Nugget Point in the Catlins, but not quite as impressive.
Where to Stay in Paringa
PARINGA SALMON FARM. The day we drove from Lake Hawea was spent driving in heavy rain. And so by the afternoon we just wanted to park up and get cosy for the night. So we stopped at Paringa Salmon Farm for free camping! It served us fine for the one night, there is a toilet and a cafe that will hopefully be open when you are there. But other than that, don’t expect too much.
DAY 22 – PARINGA TO FRANZ JOSEF
Distance from Paringa to Franz Josef: 85km
Duration: 1 Hour 10 Minutes
After a slow day yesterday, we couldn’t wait to get further North up the West Coast and towards the glaciers! So we made our way to Franz Josef, making a few stops on the way. We were going to visit the Franz Josef glacier the next morning, so make sure to use this day to plan out whether you want to book a heli-hike or walk to the viewpoint for free instead.
Things To Do from Paringa to Franz Josef
STOP OFF AT LAKE MATHESON. After 50 minutes of driving from Paringa make sure to stop at Lake Matheson and walk the 2.5km loop track. If the weather is right, you will be rewarded with a complete reflection in the lake of Mount Cook and Mount Tasman.
VISIT THE FOX GLACIER. On your way to Franz Josef you will also pass through the small town of Fox Glacier which is also home to another popular glacier. You can walk the Fox Glacier South Side Walkway which will take you to two viewpoints of the glacier. It is a 2 hour return trip, and is definitely worth the stop if you have the time.
Where to Stay in Franz Josef
GLOWWORM ACCOMODATION. Franz Josef is another town which isn’t home to any free or cheap campsites. So instead we decided to stay at this hostel, but slept in our van instead of one of their rooms. It was $20 per person, but we had full use of the hostels facilities, including free soup in the evening and breakfast the next day. It was a really well equipped hostel, and was great for us to charge our devices and use the wifi.
DAY 23 – FRANZ JOSEF TO HOKITIKA
Distance from Franz Josef to Hokitika: 134km
Duration: 1 Hour 45 Minutes
After arriving in Franz Josef yesterday, today is the day to visit the famous glacier! Hopefully the weather will be better for you than it was for us. We only managed a very distant view of the glacier, as the rest of the track was closed off due to flooding! In fact our whole journey along the West Coast involved heavy rain! So after our failed morning in Franz Josef, we decided to head North to Hokitika, a small town on the coast.
Things To Do in Franz Josef & Hokitika
HIKE THE FRANZ JOSEF GLACIER WALK. We decided to take the free option to view the glacier! After the first 15 minutes of the walk you get to a viewpoint of the glacier, although it is quite far in the distance. Another 30 minutes walk along the route will take you to the last and closest viewpoint that you can reach. There are barriers here to stop you going any further. Unfortunately, due to the bad weather, the track was closed off after the first viewpoint when we were there! So we really didn’t get a good look at the glacier at all!
BOOK ONTO A GLACIER HELI-HIKE. If Franz Josef glacier was one of the things you were looking forward to the most on this trip, then consider booking onto a heli-hike. They are expensive at around $455 like this one here, but it would be an experience to remember.
WALK ALONG HOKITIKA BEACH. Hokitika beach is famous for its iconic driftwood sculpture spelling out the name of the town. There are also many other pieces of art dotted along the beach, so make sure to have a wander!
Where to Stay in Hokitika
WOODSTOCK HOTEL. Just a 7 minute drive outside of Hokitika is this hotel/bar that provides free camping in its car park! They do encourage you to buy a drink or food at the bar, but it was lovely to sit inside and warm up with the fire. And you can use their flushing toilet!
DAY 24 – HOKITIKA TO NELSON
Distance from Hokitika to Nelson: 325km
Duration: 4 Hours 15 Minutes
As our journey along the West Coast had been plagued with heavy rain, and more heavy rain was forecast, we decided to skip the few other coastal towns and drive straight up to Nelson. Nelson is a large town situated right at the top of the South Island, and is a great base to explore the Abel Tasman National Park and Tasman Bay. This was the most amount of driving we had done in one day so far, and so by the time we reached Nelson we just spent the afternoon relaxing in the van.
VISIT THE PANCAKE ROCKS. We couldn’t leave the West Coast without seeing the Pancake Rocks. So an hour into our journey we made sure to stop off here! And I am so glad we did, as it was one of my favourite parts of the South Island. After a short walk from the car park you will reach a boardwalk that leads you through the odd shaped rocks, that looked like stacked pancakes! There are also numerous blowholes dotted around, which because of the power of the waves frequently blow water high into the air. If you have a chance to stop here, you absolutely must!
DAY 25 – NELSON
We decided to spend a couple of days in Nelson, mostly to wait out the storm but it was also a good chance to clean out the van after all of the wet weather and to rest our limbs. The town itself is really pretty, with quite a few things to see and do. Although it didn’t really come across as very welcoming to backpackers and campervans.
Things To Do in Nelson
VISIT THE JENS HANSEN GALLERY. If you are even a slight fan of Lord Of The Rings then you have to visit the Jens Hansen Gallery. This jeweller created The Ring for the films, including hundreds of variations of different sizes and weights. They are very happy to show you the rings if you ask!
TAKE A LOOK AT NELSON CATHEDRAL. If you are walking through the centre of town then you will probably notice the cathedral. The architecture is very unusual, and unlike any traditional cathedral. It is definitely worth a look!
WALK TO THE CENTRE OF NEW ZEALAND. After a short but steep 20 minute walk you can reach the top of Botanical Hill. From here you get a great view of Nelson and the surrounding area. Even though it is called the centre of New Zealand, apparently it isn’t actually the centre!
Where to Stay in Nelson
MONTGOMERY CAR PARK. There are free places to park your van at night in Nelson, but I wouldn’t exactly call them campsites. The centre of town is home to a few car parks that allow a small number of self-contained vehicles to stay in the allocated spaces for free overnight. There is also a toilet that you can use in one of the car parks.
WAKATU CAR PARK. This car park is close by to Montgomery, and both are very similar. Just make sure to hide away your valuables, as a few people had commented on Campermate that their vans had been broken into.
DAY 26 – NELSON TO TASMAN
Distance from Nelson to Tasman: 38km
Duration: 30 Minutes
At this point in our trip we were having a few rainy days and therefore decided to take things slowly. We didn’t want to try and see everything in the rain, knowing that we wouldn’t enjoy it as much. So we took our time travelling up to the Abel Tasman National Park, where we would be able to explore in a few days once the rain has passed. So you will likely be able to travel to that area in one day given that the weather is ok!
Where to Stay in Tasman
KINA BEACH RESERVE. We made our way to this campsite in the afternoon, and were really glad to spend the evening chilling in our van at this lovely site. It is situated just off the beach, and is equipped with multiple enclosed toilets, and even sinks to wash dishes in! We paid $5 per person, which was an extremely reasonable price for the facilities that were available.
DAY 27 – TASMAN TO FAREWELL SPIT
Distance from Tasman to Farewell Spit: 115km
Duration: 1 Hour 50 Minutes
Another rainy day for us, so we carefully made the journey right to the top of the South Island, just below Farewell Spit. The roads here can get quite windy, so be careful! We made sure to arrive at our campsite in good time, as we had heard that it gets full up by late afternoon.
Where to Stay at Farewell Spit
TAUPATA GRAVEL RESERVE. This campsite is the only free one in the area, and for that reason it gets full up pretty quickly in the afternoon! It is available for both self-contained and non self-contained vehicles, and has a portaloo set up in the summer. It is a beautiful site as just on the beach next to it are nesting birds! But please obey the signs and don’t walk on the beach, as this would harm the wildlife here.
DAY 28 – FAREWELL SPIT TO MOTUEKA
Distance from Farewell Spit to Motueka: 106km
Duration: 1 Hour 45 Minutes
By this point the rain had finally passed, and we were able to explore the area. We spent the day making stop offs from Farewell Spit to Motueka. We decided against exploring Abel Tasman National Park itself, as we hadn’t researched or planned enough in that area. So instead we wanted to explore the notable sights around it! For a more in depth itinerary of this particular day of the road trip, read my full blog post here.
Things To Do from Farewell Spit to Motueka
SPOT THE SEALS AT WHARARIKI BEACH. Just a short 15 minute drive North from the campsite will take you to Wharariki beach. The iconic cliffs set out at sea are very well photographed, and are actually the default desktop background for Windows computers! It is the perfect place to sit on the sand and watch the seals playing in the waves.
VISIT TE WAIKOROPUPU SPRINGS. Stopping off at these springs is an absolute must do! There is a 30 minute loop walk which leads you through the vibrant waters, which have spiritual meaning in the Maori culture. For this reason it is forbidden to touch the water! The colours of the springs look like something out of this world.
WALK AROUND THE GROVE SCENIC RESERVE. It is incredible how many diverse forms of nature are in such close proximity in New Zealand. We have gone from a wild beach, to brightly coloured springs and now to an ancient, overgrown woodland scattered with large rocks. There is an enjoyable track here, that takes you through a narrow walkway between two 15 metre high rocks!
PHOTOGRAPH THE JANIE SEDDON SHIPWRECK. To finish off the day head to the Janie Seddon Shipwreck in Motueka to snap a photo. This shipwreck sits perfectly upright, and when the tide is out you can walk right up to it via the stepping stones. If you miss a stepping stone, you will get very muddy feet!
Where to Stay in Motueka
MOTUEKA BEACH RESERVE. A few minutes drive from the shipwreck is this free campsite, which is equipped with incredible facilities! There are flushing toilets, a sink for washing dishes, a cold shower and even BBQs to use. If you enjoyed this campsite, donate some money if you can to keep it going!
DAY 29 – MOTUEKA TO PICTON
Distance from Motueka to Picton: 173km
Duration: 2 Hours 15 Minutes
So for our last full day we made the journey towards Picton, which is where you get the ferry to and from the South and North Islands. We made a quick stop off in Nelson on the way to do some laundry, but other than that we wanted to make it to the campsite as quickly as possible.
Where to Stay in Picton
COLLINS MEMORIAL RESERVE. This is the closest free campsite that you will find near Picton, so as you can expect it does get full every night. We arrived early afternoon to guarantee a spot, and we were the second ones there. I think it varies day to day how quickly it gets full! Unfortunately the campsite is just off the side of the road and isn’t near anything, so there is nothing to do besides relax in your van. It is pretty quiet here at night, as most people will be getting the morning ferry which calls for an early night!
DAY 30 – FERRY FROM PICTON TO WELLINGTON
To travel from each island with a vehicle, you will need to book the ferry from Picton to Wellington. We booked through the Bluebridge website, which came to $222 for two people and the van. You have to check-in an hour before departure, and the journey lasts about 3 and a half hours. The ferry itself is very comfortable, with numerous places to sit and relax!
Well I applaud you if you got to this part of my New Zealand South Island Itinerary! If you have the time to spend four weeks in the South Island, then I really recommend that you do. I would prioritise spending more time here than the North Island, there are endless things to see without ever getting bored!
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