Five Days exploring New Zealand in a Campervan

In early 2020, my family and I had an epic vacation where we spent six weeks in Australia, Fiji and New Zealand. The highlight was a road trip by campervan, exploring the incredible sights and natural adventures of the South Island of New Zealand. Planning this trip was overwhelming because there was so much to do, and we only had 6 nights and 7 days to explore. The campervan was perfect for the trip because it allowed us to control our schedule and mix in major tourist sights with off the beaten path experiences.  

We started off in Queenstown, which is somewhat comparable to Aspen, CO. Queenstown is a cute mountain city with snow skiing minutes away, fantastic restaurants, and plenty of retail boutiques. It has mountains on one side and Lake Wakatipu on the other. After a short rainfall, we saw a brilliant rainbow in front of us. We told our kids about the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow and saw their eyes light up and look towards the end.

Day 2 was a 10 hour day trip by bus to Milford Sound. Famously described by Rudyard Kipling as the 'eighth wonder of the world,' Milford Sound was carved by glaciers in the beginning of the ice ages. We took a 2.5 hour boat cruise around the sound and had spectacular views of waterfalls cascading downward from over 1,000 meters. We saw seals and dolphins. I was on the lookout for otters since I flashbacked  20 years earlier during my first visit to Milford Sound, where I kayaked for 8 hours and saw two otters follow our kayaks into nightfall. 

In the early morning of Day 3, I picked up our campervan and the real adventure began. We were planning to spend the next 4 nights in this vehicle, which sleeps 4; it includes a kitchen, shower, and toilet. In New Zealand, many places permit freedom camping. Our first destination was two hours away in a cute town called Wanaka, situated on Lake Wanaka, surrounded by mountains. Wanaka is becoming the next Queenstown but less crowded and more laid back.    We stopped by a museum for 90 minutes and then walked around town and picked up some groceries. This was our first night cooking and sleeping in our campervan. After dinner, we stopped by the famous Wanaka Willow tree; unfortunately this natural symbol was vandalized.

Our longest travel day was next, Day 4, so we drove off early towards Haast Pass, the lowest pass of the Southern Alps which connects the west side to the east side of the South Island. We drove by Mount Aspiring National Park and stopped by for a 45 minute nature hike to cross some trail bridges and check out the Blue Pools. I dipped my toes in the water, which was ice cold from the melting snow on nearby mountain tops. It was early spring in NZ so there was a lot of freezing water melting from the mountain tops. We drove through lots of elevation and curvy roads through Haast Pass toward the west coast. At times, I was anxious as the campervan was the size of a 20 foot Uhaul moving truck. We pulled by a scenic vista to eat lunch. 

Once we made it to the Pacific Ocean, we drove north along the coast. Then, we made a stop to put our feet in the Pacific Ocean which was chilly.  During our short stop, we were swarmed by tiny sandflies that left little red blood marks on our ankles. 

A couple hours of driving later, we parked for another short hike to get a close-up glimpse of the Franz Josef and Fox Glacier. The uniqueness of these 2 glaciers is that they are quite low in altitude, 300 meters above sea level. It was nearing nightfall, so we didn’t climb all the way to the glaciers. We kept driving north near the ocean and passed by small town after small town.   It was quite late by the time we found a place to camp. Day 4 was by far our longest day and the longest drive-- about 11 hours.

On day 5, we drove through the mountains from the west side to the east side via Arthur’s Pass on our way to Christchurch. The day was met with rain and fog and lots of elevation through the mountains again. A little past midway, we made an unplanned stop to see Castle Hill, where rock formations had developed over centuries of storms near the mountains. We walked by a couple of pig farms towards the rocks, which were quite large up close. We wandered around for a good hour. As we marched back to our car, the rain drops started coming, so we had to run to our campervan to not be soaked. This unplanned adventure was the highlight of the day.

The rest of the drive to Christchurch was smooth. We stayed in a campervan camping ground near the city centre but didn’t tour much because of the rain. The camping grounds included showers and a kitchen which was a welcome break. After dinner, we saw another rainbow  in the background of the camping grounds.

Day 6 included a 2 hour drive to Lake Tekapo, a glacier fed lake which gives it a brilliant turquoise blue color as the minerals from the glacier pour into the lake. In the background, there was Mt. Cook, the highest mountain in New Zealand at 3,700 meters. Not far from Mt. Cook was the Sir Edmund Hillary Alpine Center. Sir Edmund Hillary was a New Zealand explorer and philanthropist; his foundation sponsors the Edmund Hillary Fellowship in which I was Cohort 6.

We spent the night just south of Lake Tekapo, and our kids had a chance to play at a nearby playground. On Day 7, we drove past Wanaka and then back to Queenstown.  We had a few hours before we had to return the campervan, so we went to Bob’s Cove which had a nice nature walk. We only saw one family during this short hike, so it was a peaceful conclusion to our journey.

Spectacular waterfalls, glaciers, and  scenic hikes were small parts of an amazing week crowded together 24/7 in a 20 foot moving truck with 4 beds, a kitchen, a shower, and toilet. Little did we know that Coronavirus was just starting to spread and we would soon be quarantining together for several more months.    We had a little accident along the way when we were crossing a small bridge; fortunately, I bought the insurance package. Our 3.5 year old boy impressed us by hiking himself, and our 2 year old girl wanted to be picked up whenever we began a hike; they called our campervan “the house car.” The close quarters was an experience of a lifetime for our family, and I’m excited to share photos of this trip to rekindle my children’s memories as they grow up.

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