The South Island of New Zealand is an outdoor adventure lover’s paradise. Everywhere you turn there’s a new mountain to climb, gorgeous blue lakes to jump into, and landscape to see. There’s a reason they’ve shot so many movies and T.V. shows here (Lord of the Rings, Narnia, Last Samurai, anyone?) it literally looks like a movie set. What’s also pretty interesting is there is quite a bit of diversity here - from beach towns, to mountains, to rolling hills, even glaciers. All packed into one island about the size of California. Efficient.
Another great thing about New Zealand is how peaceful it is. Fun fact- there’s more sheep here than people, which means you are more likely to hear sheep bahh’s than people shouting. It’s a great change of pace for all you city slickers out there.
All that being said, part of the magic of New Zealand is driving and exploring the countryside. Especially the South Island- there are a few larger cities including Queenstown, Dunedin, Invercargill, Christchurch (size is all relative though - “cities” can be somewhat of a loose term), but mostly it is smaller towns and vast countryside. That being said many days our activity literally WAS driving. There’s just so much to see, we couldn’t wait to hit the road and let the scenes unfold. If you ask us, it’s a crime to not have SOME form of transportation for yourself, be it a bicycle, car, or our recommendation- a camper van.
So, van life. Not the soccer mom mini-van life - but full on, live out of your van, go wherever the wind takes you, van life. It’s exactly what you need for exploring every inch of the country with the freedom to pull over everywhere, take thousands of pictures, and have all the spontaneous hikes.
Here’s what our 12 day itinerary looked like:
12 day Itinerary:
Queenstown – Milford Sound – Queenstown – lake wanaka – Fox Glacier – Abel Tasman – Nelson – HamNer Springs – ArtHUr’s Pass – Lake TekapO – AKAROA Peninsula – Christchurch
Easiest way to get to the South Island is to fly into Auckland on the North Island and then transfer to Queenstown or Christchurch. Auckland is the largest airport in New Zealand so has the most options available (we got a nonstop from Houston… I know we were just as shocked). This also lets you explore the North Island if you choose, which has many fun things of its own like Bay of Islands, Hobbit Town, and the geysers of Rotorua. There’s the option to rent a van on the North Island and ferry it down, but unless you have ample time (and want to pay a hefty rate) we’d recommend just flying down and renting your vehicle when you get the to the South Island.
There are 2 different ways you can do the South Island, either start in Queenstown and loop up to Christchurch or the opposite. Either way we’d recommend flying into one and out of the other. We flew first to Queenstown and then left out of Christchurch because we wanted to make sure we didn’t run out of time for seeing Queenstown and Milford Sound.
When you arrive to Queenstown you can pick up your van. Make sure you time your arrival to the airport for when the van rental company is open. You don’t want to get in late and have them be closed with no place to stay. Plan for 1-2 hours for picking up the van and getting situated. Depending on the size, it may take some time to navigate driving your van, so go slowly at first.
DRIVING ON THE LEFT SIDE OF THE ROAD: Say what? Yes in New Zealand they drive on the other side of the road. But it’s really not that big of an adjustment. If you just remember that no matter what : as the driver you should be closest to the center of the road, it feels pretty natural. It may take a few times to get used to but it’s not bad. Don’t stress feeling that you can’t drive here. You can, and you should.
Backing up: These vans can be a lot bigger than what you are used to driving, meaning that “baby got back” and you need to know what it’s backing up into. Have one person jump outside and spot you backing up when you are leaving sites/ parking lots. Our first night we backed into a stump and knocked off our drain pipe. Not ideal. Avoid having a leaky drain pipe and have a spotter…
Gas: if you see a gas station FILL UP! There can be long stretched of nothing which is amazing for hiking and exploring nature, but not so great when you are running low on fuel. The hours can also be funky- one Sunday we passed by 3 stations before we found one that was open. Always better safe than sorry.
First thing you’ll want to do is stock up on food/snacks so you’re all set to start adventuring. Plan to stock up on food every couple of days. Vans don’t have excessive storage space, but should have enough to last you for a few days. Big cities also tend to have the largest selection, and you don’t want to stress about finding a grocery store in some of the smaller towns.
Freedom Camping: If you are planning to stay in a city for the first night, check in for the places you can “freedom camp” (this means you can camp there without having to pay a fee) vs. a paid site. Typically cities will have less options for freedom vamping vs. a paid site. Paid sites though tend to have other luxuries such as kitchens, showers, and bathrooms- so if your van doesn’t have these it may be your best option. They also have charging stations for your electricity which is important for running your heater (nights are chilly), microwave, and TV (if you use it). We usually stayed at a paid site every 3-4 days to get a charge and the rest we freedom camped. There’s a great App you can use to find sites called “CampMate” but be sure to download when you have service (it’s the wild west out there in some parts).
Choosing The Van: We opted for a van with a kitchen from Britz (meaning stove and microwave) and a bathroom. Especially if you want true freedom this is essential. Many times you are out on the road for hours on end and don’t see anything but mountains and forest – which is really great but doesn’t leave a lot of options to buy a meal or relieve yourself (we’ll leave it at that..). If your budget can allow, this is really the best way to do it. Plus we all have had the memories of camping food inexplicably tasting 10x better (no matter what you make).. still true for van camping.
Every day we’d get up early to shoot sunrise and then head out for the day. We liked to get a head start so that by lunch time we’d be in a new desitation and could stop to hike and have lunch before heading to the next site, or hitting the town. Night life in new Zealand isn’t exactly “up all hours of the night” kind of a scene -if you know what we mean.. so getting to bed early and having an early start worked well for us. Plus there’s just so much to do and see, you’ll want to have as much time as possible to take it all in.
Meals in a camper van can get interesting. The question becomes, what can you do with 2 burners, a sink, frige and microwave. Turns out a lot actually. Okay so you don’t have oven- big deal. It gives you a great opportunity to kick up your skillet game. You don’t have to eat canned foods or microwavable dinners – there’s a lot you can do, and you have flexibility for starlit mountain view meals (we’ll take that).
It also lets you dive into the great local ingredients of New Zealand. There are a lot of roadside farm stands and places to get the freshest local produce and meats and they are very conscious about the integrity of their products. To give you an example, we went into a butcher and asked for “grass fed beef”. He turned and looked at us to say “I don’t understand.. what else would they feed cows?” Great question – come to America because they have all sorts of sketchy answers (but let’s not get into that shall we…)
To make things easy plan for leftovers – we would usually make a nice dinner that could be heat up for breakfast and (top with an egg and it’s magically breakfast right?) Or maybe even have make enough to ALSO last for the next night’s dinner. (TIP: BUY TUPPERWARE IF YOUR VAN DOESN’T INCLUDE IT – IT WILL BE WORTH THE INVESTMENT!!)
Some of our meals:
· Lettuce wrapped fajitas- just marinade the meat in the morning when you wake up (try simply with some limes and salt), sauté whatever veggies you have on hand, make a little guac and BOOM- great meal for the night.
· Simply roasted meat and side of fresh veggies – keep it simple, cook up some chicken or beef and have some sautéd veggies with a side salad. drizzle some olive oil, lemon and sea salt. Easy.
· Stir fry – hello one-pan meal. Use simple seasonings and put all your veggies and meat in one pan. less dishes.
· Put an avo on it – because avocados make everything yummier. They can save any meal, STOCK UP.
· Ratatouille – basically a fancy French word for roasted veggies in a tomato based sauce (you can use canned tomatoes for this). Great to eat and reheat because it keeps getting better (also you can top it with an egg in the morning to be like shakshuka - because as we already established... Anything with an egg= breakfast)
· Have snacks on hand – apples, nuts, unsweetened dried coconut, jerky, carrots. You are in the car a lot- snacking can help to keep you going, so make sure you have things you won’t overload on (we always have to watch ourselves on the nuts- small but powerful!) If you want some ideas check out our post on healthy travel snacks
During the day
During the day you will be out adventuring. This usually means a new destination or site everyday. The only place we stayed for more than 1 day was Queenstown because we wanted to do a few of the extreme activities (aka hang gliding, shotover jet, bungee jumping, and hiking). Every other day was filled with at least some drive time, hiking, and exploring nature. Don’t overthink it. Go to a new site each day- get out, walk around, soak in the scenery, have a picnic, take some pictures, doing some yoga in the forest and enjoy the quiet stillness of “the great outdoors”.
Every night was a new adventure for where we parked the van. We were always on the hunt to stay somewhere with an epic view of a lake or mountain because there is nothing like waking up to that “picture perfect” morning sunrise. And don’t even get us started on the stars… if you don’t get the chance to be out in nature as often make sure to take advantage because they really are spectacular to see. Hold the controversy, but we find stargazing just as romantic as the canals of Venice or the streets of Paris. Just snuggle up, hold your partner tight, and try to tell us you are not feeling the love.
Avoid Sand: Make sure if you go looking for that ideal camping spot, that you don’t get stuck in the sand. There are many riverbeds and beach front locations out there, that you “can’t believe no one else is parked at”. Chances are its because there’s sand and your camper van will get stuck. Take our word for it (we got stuck on 3 different occasion) you don’t want to be digging yourself out at midnight with a stick. Check your foundations….
Find somewhere flat: This is crucial for finding a good nights sleep and cooking (no one likes a sliding pot of boiling water)
Find the sight while there’s still light: Just like typical camping, its always better to get set up while it’s light outside. This allows you to SEE if there is sand, flat ground, or stumps (all these got the better of us during our journey). It also allows you to get dinner cooked up so you can enjoy it with a beautiful sunset or just beyond twilight
Turn off your lights at night: If you enjoy starting your car in the morning than make sure all the lights are turned off at night or when you leave the van. We missed one of our tours to go Kayaking (luckily they could switch to another day) because our van wouldn’t start. That’s one adventure you are better avoiding in New Zealand - trying to jump start a camper van…
What we got RIGHT:
· BUG RACKET! This is our biggest tip probably of the whole trip. There are little mosquitos on the South Island (called sand flies). Though they be but little, they are fierce- their bites are much more intense than normal mosquitos. They are so UGGGHHH because every single time you open the doors to the van they fly in. At which point you may try to smash them with your sandals or something. Then you have dead bugs all over the van. But if you have a bug racket you can go “Roger Federer” on them and zap them to another dimension. We bought this one on amazon and just packed it in our bag. Make the effort, because this will SAVE your trip.
· Headlamps: These were really nice to have on hand at night. When settling into bed, middle of the night restroom visits, and waking up - you don’t want to have to turn on all the lights in the van. We brought these to have next to us during the evenings and ended up using them every night. Also allows you to save your battery (as noted above…)
· Splurge On The Van: You are going to be spending most of your time in the van. Splurge to make sure you have space to sleep, walk around, cook, and go to the bathroom. You’ll thank yourself later for spending a little more money to have a more enjoyable space. Remember, you are not paying for hotels, restaurants, or cars – it is an all in one fee so account accordingly.
· Audio Books: we erred on the side of more driving because it allowed us to see more of the countryside. Have some good audio books (download before you go because service can be spotty) and enjoy taking in the scenery to the soothing sound of your favorite novelist. Trust us you’ll want to drive to see EVERYTHING you can. Bring an aux cord to plug in because most of these vans are pre bluetooth.
If you have any questions or have tales from your own adventure to New Zealand we’d love to hear!
That’s all for now-