I never really knew much about New Zealand except for its famous rugby team, the All blacks. I think I recall New Zealand having good lamb meat too. So when I arrived, I didn’t really know what to expect, I thought it may be similar to Australia but I was pleasantly surprised.
New Zealand is separated into the North and South islands. I only allotted two weeks to visit New Zealand, so I decided I would visit the South island only as I was arriving in Christchurch. NZ itself isn’t a huge country and if you are purely travelling then you can probably see the main spots around both islands in a month. However a lot of people tend to come out and do a working holiday in NZ also and so you may not meet a lot of kiwis (slang for New Zealanders).
I didn’t plan any of this trip but I did have one thing, my trusty campervan named Captain America.
Getting around NZ was very pleasant, you drive 5 minutes out of the city and there are towering mountains and luscious scenery. There is a reason why Peter Jackson decided to film Lord of the Rings in NZ. However there are different options for getting around
- Kiwi Experience
- New Zealand Hop on-off
- Rent a car
- Rent a camper
The company is similar to the greyhound service in Australia but offers certain passes for a cost of $500 upwards. There was a lot of banners advertising the experience and the routes outlined pass through the main hotspots.
Hop on and off
A similar option to the kiwi experience with routes which are similar and some routes which extend further than the popular destinations. The prices are a lot more steep but there are more travel options and routes but prices average about $1000 for a 2 week travel pass.
Rent a car
I looked extensively at renting a car and if you rent a compact car then it can be pretty cheap but then you have to consider whether you want inclusive insurance or if you want to risk it without. As NZ has a lot of loose gravel and constantly changing nature, then you may want to consider adding on some sort of insurance. If you are travelling with a partner then you can split costs. A 4-wheel-drive car isn’t really necessary as a lot of roads are paved but there are some roads which are slightly off the beaten track which may need a 4WD car.
I decided that I would go with this option, I rented a Spaceship rocket campervan, which was the budget van. I got unlimited km, a bed but no cooking amenities with the car. I decided to get all inclusive insurance which added an extra £100 but it was a precaution, I had a few chips on the windscreen while driving but nothing substantial. In hindsight you may want to get the mid-level insurance which covers some damage with $1500 excess. There are plenty of companies out there so you should research which you want. Off the top of my head these are some companies you should look at:
- Maui: popular for self contained campers and spacious
- Jucy: popular with backpackers and a rival to Spaceships – offer a lot of different options and are probably the leading company with the younger crowd
- Spaceship: the rival to Jucy, offer cheaper campers. Presence isn’t as large as Jucy
- Britz: similar to Maui and offer large campers
- Travellers autobarn: offer large campers
- Do it yourself: this isn’t a company but I saw gutted out vans which were then kitted out with equipment. If you are planning to travel for a while and work in NZ then this may be a good option because you can buy a van, kit it out then sell it when you have to leave and probably not lose out on much money.
I forgot to mention the difference between non self contained and self contained. These are the different types of campers, so if it is contained then you store the waste, water and can use facilities like a shower within the camper without utilising a campsite. A non self contained camper requires use of facilities from a campsite, like toilet and shower facilities and dumping of any waste e.g. food rubbish etc. If you decide to get a campervan then you should download Campermate app which was extremely useful in locating the camping sites which were for non/self contained sites and the costs. It was definitely a good experience just camping out in a van and you wake up brushing your teeth to the site of mountains, lakes and sometimes a beautiful sun rise. If you are with your partner then you’ll be able to share incredible scenery together.
Also if you decide to get a campervan then see if you can get any deals, call up the companies and enquire because someone I chatted to managed to get a self contained jucy van for 15 dollars a day, likely without insurance.
The car rental for my trip was $21 a day, if you want all inclusive insurance slap on a $30 daily fee and then petrol came to about $450 overall. Altogether for a single person I spent $800-850 dollars which is pretty good. If you were a duo then slice that number in two.
I copied a driving route from variable sources and if you look at the Kiwi experience route, it has a good one planned out. However I decided to just drive to the main spots and stop off at any places which caught my eye. This is what my driving route looked like:
Christchurch – Greymouth/ Punakaiki – Hokitika (Gorge) – Franz Josef – Lake Matheson – Wanaka – Queenstown- Te Anau/Milford Sound – Dunedin – Hooker Valley- Lake Pukaki + Tekapo – Akaroa
I didn’t explore much of Christchurch but it is one of NZ main airports you can fly into. I was warned that if you fly to Wellington that it can be very windy on landing, so not for people who have a fear of flying. It is definitely a good starting point but you can even fly into Queenstown if you want to.
I didn’t really explore much of Christchurch, I hung out with some friends I met and had food in some local spots. There is an old tram and you can get a city tour but other than the Antartic centre, not much else was recommended, especially since a lot of Christchurch was destroyed in its 2012 earthquake.
There isn’t much to see or do here but it is a good stop off to gather supplies. The only things that appealed to me were the Shanty Town site, which is an amusement park and how the gold rush started in NZ. Another place is Monteiths brewery, you can visit this NZ beerhouse, get a guided tour and then a taste of their beers. It is a big company, so you can just buy their beers in the supermarkets and enjoy it in your van or hostel. I particularly enjoyed their Radler, which is pretty much a chandy.
Paparoa National Park
If you stop off in Greymouth then the pancake rocks and paparoa national park isn’t far off. It is roughly 30 minutes away and the drive is breathtaking. I didn’t venture too far away from pancake rocks but you can really explore the national park, go water rafting, kayaking etc.
I saw the gorge in a magazine and I had to go, it was on the way to Franz Josef which was my next big stop. The gorge is free to see and the trail is extremely easy, the water is exceptionally blue and clear because of the mixture of clear water and glacial flour. The information about the gorge stated that the glacial water mixed in with the glacial flour (grit/sand etc.) gives off this blue tint in the water and that is why it looks immense. It is a short stop off but I would highly recommend it.
This is another well known site due to its glacier which is popular with tourists. If you wish to see and walk on the glacier you have the choice of going to Franz josef or Fox glacier. Franz Josef is bigger than Fox township and I didn’t stop off here.
I highly recommend a scenic flight or a heli hike but it will set you back £120-250, if you don’t want to splash out then there are trails which you can hike to get a view of the glacier but you won’t be able to walk on it.
I decided to opt for the heli hike and go with FJ Guides, it was $459 NZ and worth it, especially since you get free entry into the hot pools after your hike. The weather can vary hour by hour so allot two days in Franz Josef or more if you want to do the glacial hike. What to expect:
- Book a flight for 9.15am/ 1pm/3pm
- They provide all the gear but you need to bring some layers
- If its all good to go then you will board the helicopter in groups of 4 and fly over to Franz Josef Glacier
- The guide will meet you and then take you on a 3 hour hike of the glacier, whilst wielding a pickaxe – pretty badass – don’t worry its so they can carve out steps
- Helicopter back to base and chillout at the hot pools
Our guide Nicola said that the glacier may not be around in the next 50 years, as it is constantly retreating due to the rise in global temperature, so go see it while you can.
On my way to Wanaka, I saw signs for Lake Matheson and decided to take a detour. I am so glad I did. The trail goes around the lake and offers you different views, there was the view of views and scenic lookout. I decided to just go around the whole lake and the picture framing was immense. The trail only took 1 hour 30 in total but the view of lake matheson with mt cook and tasman in the background was something you see in an art gallery.
I really liked Wanaka, it was a small town but had a lot of shops to offer. It is centred around Roys bay and there are lakes behind Roys bay. The views again were immense and this was the perfect chill out place. I strolled along the bay and ended up at “thatwanaktree”,which is a famous tree immersed in the bay. Supposedly it has been like that for the last 70 years.
I decided to climb Roys peak and the view overlooking Roys bay and lake Wanaka was something else, the climb took 5 hours but there are plenty of other activites like biking around or taking a kayak out on the bay.
This is probably the most well known tourist hotspot in the South island. I spent 3 days here and I forgot I had a friend who lived there but luckily enough we met up and I was able to stay in his warm house for a few days. There are plenty of shops and tourist shops in Q-town and if you go in ski season then you may head to the Remarkables for abit of skiing.
I decided I would take a Shotover jet boat and do a bungy here. The shotover boat ride is basically where you sit on a high powered jet boat and take a ride in the lake and if you wish along the canyon river. There were a few options such as K-jet, Shotover canyon and Skipper. I decided to go for K-jet as the ride was over an hour long but you don’t go up to the canyon river (ride lasts 30 minutes but it is crazy fast).
I also decided I would try out the bungy as Queenstown is supposedly the birthplace/ first recorded bungy. AJ Hackett runs all the bungy services here and offer the Kawarau bungy (original – over the Kawarau river), Ledge bungy – freestyle jump or canyon swing (you don’t have to jump off but sit in a swing and get “let go”.)
I went for the Ledge bungy as I was aiming to run and jump, whereas if you go for the original bungy, you have to shuffle to the edge of the bungy platform and then jump off. The good thing about the freestyle ledge bungy is that you can literally do whatever you want and the guy who went before me did a badass backflip. So when I literally ran and jumped off the platform whilst performing a war-cry, it definitely made me look like a complete wuss.
The bungy ranges from $205-250 NZ and I want to say it was worth it, but for 10 seconds of shit your pants, I wouldn’t be jumping to do it again. I would recommend a skydive over a bungy any day but then there are higher bungys which may be worth their value.
I should mention that if you go to Queenstown then you should probably try Fergburger, the lines are ludicrous to try out this New Zealand brand burgerhouse and so you can phone up or even order online to skip the queue. If you don’t fancy a burger then you can go to the Fergbaker to try out one of their pies.
Milford Sound and Te Anau
The tour operator in Queenstown suggested I take the bus and cruise from Q-town, he definitely had a persuasive personality because I decided to book my jet boat, bungy and milford sound day trip. I thought I would prefer just to sit and enjoy the scenery plus save petrol costs – especially since I would have to come back to Queenstown in order to continue my trip.
Te Anau itself is just the gateway town into Milford sound (which is the body of water where you will take the cruise). There isn’t anything in Te Anau but maybe could be a rest stop. The Milford sound itself was a beautiful cruise but I would suggest a scenic flight through the valley.
What about the coach ride to Milford? I think it was good value but if you want to make full use of your campervan then you will easily find spots to freedom camp but you should pre-book your cruise as I didn’t know whether you could book at the docks.
An alternative to Milford sound would be to cruise the Doubtful sound but the coach driver said that the cruise was usually a night cruise.
Alberts Town and Dunedin
I drove halfway to Dunedin after my day trip to Milford and stopped off in Alberts town as there was a low cost campsite there. It was a nice stop off and you can get some fresh fish and chips from Albert town chippie.
In Dunedin, I didn’t find there was much to do. It was a relatively large town compared to NZ standards and a bartender who I chatted to said the population on Dunedin was about 150,000. There were a few recommendations around Dundedin such as:
- Cadbury factory tour
- Speights beer factory tour
- Tunnel beach walk – haven for wildlife
- Bourbon street – worlds steepest street
- Dunedin railway
I decided to go to the railway and enjoy my free time at the Baa pub.
Hooker Valley – Lake Pukaki – Lake Tekapo
When you circle back around, you really are spoilt for choice. These lakes are all beautiful and you can choose to camp near them all. The area is known for its dark sky reserve and so this is a prime place for star gazing and you can even hire a tour to take you around and take some immense photos. Sometimes you may even be able to see the Southern lights (reddish hue).
I decided to stay at white horse camp which is situated next to the Hooker valley and the village. The trail up to Hooker lake is easy and you will get an immense view of the blue lake surrounded by the mountain range.
Lake Pukaki is another popular site because of its immensely blue waters and if you have a self contained camper then there is a site which allows you to camp next to Pukaki. However if you want to stargaze then Lake Tekapo is where you should be staying the night.
By the way I should mention that near Lake Pukaki is a salmon farm and you can eat fresh sashimi in this area. If you stop off at the Mt Cook visitor centre, you can get a box of sashimi for 10 bucks. Fresh cheap sashimi!
This town is about 90 minutes from Christchurch and the drive is immense, towards the end of the end of the drive, you will begin to ascend and be able to see the valleys from atop. The township was actually the home to French settlers and you will still see French on some buildings and the roads are in French.
The quiet town has regular boat trips where you can see dolphins and you can even rent a boat to go out onto the Akaroa harbour. I only spent the day there but I had to try the fish and chips there because everyone said it was extremely fresh and famous there. I strolled to a place called Murphys and man it was so good! Unfortunately they didn’t have Akaroa Salmon but I also heard this is awesome too.
- Bring a toilet roll if you go camping just in case the facilities do not have tissue
- Seriously consider getting a campervan and sharing with a mate because it is such a good experience – in Winter it will be colder but it will be cheaper and quieter as it is peak season and the views of the mountains will be nice with a little snow peak on top!
- Bring some cash and change with you to pay for the campsites – some sites will use paywave/card but best to bring cash as you will likely check in late
- Just drive, you will find hidden gems and if you are renting a car, you have the choice to stop wherever you wish
- Must see in South Island: Punakaiki (drive to Paparoa National Park is amazing), Franz Josef, Lake Matheson, Wanaka, Queenstown, Hooker Valley and Lakes Pukaki Tekapo.
- A hitchhiker I picked up on the way back to Christchurch mentioned Hanmer Springs, I didn’t go but I thought I would mention it if any readers wanted to have a soak! I believe the hot springs are north of Christchurch