Everything You Need To Know About Road Tripping South Island In A Campervan: Full Breakdown By @Voyageinstyle_
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21st Jul | 14 min read

Martyna and Hamilton are a couple from Poland and Monaco who have been traveling the world as @voyageinstyle_ . They met 4 years ago wandering the streets of beautiful Montmartre and since then Paris has been their home. They left for their first trip together - backpacking across Vietnam only 3 months after meeting. Maryna and Hamilton fell in love not only with each other, but also with the adventure, new experiences and the freedom one can feel only while on the go. Since then they’ve traveled together to 32 countries on 5 continents, and in this post they'll be breaking down their trip to New Zealand's South Island.

To learn more about their many adventures, be sure to check out their blog and follow @Voyageinstyle_ on Instagram.

In this post they breakdown their 10 day South Island trip in detail, providing you everything you need to know about road tripping the island in a campervan.

What Inspired Us To Do South Island

New Zealand has been on top of our bucket list forever. I think it all started with the National Geographic Traveler I (Martyna) read as a teenager. The pictures of the South Island and its natural beauty in that article were breathtaking. After we met, while having a late night conversation about goals, we both agreed that visiting the South Island is our biggest dream.

Since then Martyna has been collecting pictures of the Island on Instagram and Pinterest, which came very useful once we were able to plan our trip.

How We Planned For The Trip

We are last minute travellers. We learned not to plan anything too far in advance as jobs in our modeling careers usually come up last minute. We even prefer it this way and often find ourselves travelling somewhere without a proper plan or even accommodations booked.

For this reason we organised and booked everything for our trip to South Island 2 days before our travels…! And we managed to do so over the busiest time of the year, meaning the Christmas Holidays.

However, we know that we were very lucky. Usually a trip to New Zealand requires planning and booking 2-3 months in advance. 

First of all we needed to get NZeTA (New Zealand Electronic Travel Authority) before confirming anything. The process of applying for this visa is very easy, all you have to do is download the app and follow the instructions. Hamilton received his NZeTA 8 min after applying, but it took mine 12h (it can take up to 72 h). In fact, we had only 1 full day to organise everything.

After booking a direct flight, departing the next day from Sydney (where we were residing at the time) to Christchurch, we started looking for camper vans on the South Island. We never traveled in a camper van before, but knew its the best way to do this trip and were really excited about this new adventure. After sending countless emails and making many phone calls to every single camper van company we could find in Christchurch, we came across a family run business which had one last camper van available in 2 days and exactly for the duration of our trip. As the reservation was so last minute, we didn’t even have to make a deposit, which is normally required. We spoke to the owners of Campa South Rentals over the phone and exchanged a couple of emails. They were amazing in getting everything ready for us so last minute. We traveled in a 2 person berth self- contained camper van.

We booked a DOC campground pass on the official website on the day we picked up the van. During our trip we stayed either on free or DOC campgrounds. Only one time we paid extra and it was at the only campground in Franz Josef Village- once again we just showed up in the afternoon and were lucky enough to get the last available spot. 

We didn’t worry about the hotels as we were not planning to stay anywhere and were perfectly happy with living in our camper van.

We were not disturbed by the fact that in some places (like Queenstown or Milford Sound) the private campgrounds located close to these particular locations were booked out. We stayed on a DOC or free campgrounds 30 min away. Views while driving in the South Island are awe-inspiring, it only gave us the opportunity to enjoy them more. And save some $$ as the private campgrounds are pretty expensive. 

We booked our Milford Sound cruise 2 days in advance. The morning of Christmas, as we expected it to be less crowded. And it was- there were only 8 people on our cruise and we had an incredible experience. 

What We Packed

We knew that the climate and weather on the South Island would be significantly different from Sydney. We usually travel light and also this time we managed to pack everything for the both of us, for a 10 days road trip in New Zealand (and 7 days of following travels in Fiji) only in 1 suitcase.

We brought comfortable clothing, warm sweaters, leggings, light puffer jackets and 2 raincoats. We also took gloves and wool hats, as well as scarfs. After our arrival in Christchurch we visited shops with outwear and we both bought waterproof pants. We used them only once, during a cruise in Milford Sound. We were lucky enough that it didn’t rain during our trip.

We didn’t invest in hiking boots for this trip and brought only walking boots and regular sneakers. To be honest all the hiking trails we did were in such good conditions that not even once we wished we had different footwear. However, if we traveled to South Island today, we would surely pack our hiking boots. 

South Island Itinerary

We did what the owner of our camper van named, ‘a classic South Island loop’, covering most of the highlights.

Day 1

From Christchurch we drove to Lake Tekapo, famous for its turquoise blue waters. However, instead of taking highway 1, we drove north of Christchurch and took route 72 instead. It added 1 h to our journey, but the road passed next to beautiful views and nature.

As it was the lupin season, the edge of Lake Tekapo was covered in colourful flowers which beautifully contrasted the blue waters. 

That night we spent our first night of the trip at one of most beautiful campgrounds on the South Island, just in front of Lake Pukaki.

Day 2

The following day we drove to Mount Cook and hiked the incredible Hooker Valley in the afternoon. We spent the night at the DOC campground and enjoyed the surrounding views to the max.

Day 3

The following day we started by visiting the Tasman Glacier and Lake before heading to Arrowtown. This was the only time we dined in a restaurant during our trip and loved every bite at Aosta Restaurant. 

After dinner we drove for another hour to a campground located just outside of Queenstown.

Day 4

We enjoyed the most picturesque road from Queenstown to Glenorchy. We visited the Wharf Shed and on the way back stopped to do a little hike to Bob’s Cove, where Lord Of The rings was filmed. After lunch we strolled around Queenstown. As it was Christmas Day, the city was very busy and we quickly missed the calmness of nature. That's why we left earlier and headed towards Milford Sound, enjoying the magnificent views along the way.

We spent the night at a DOC campsite, about 40 min drive from the location.

Day 5

We drove to Milford Sound very early and at 8 am hopped on the cruise boat. The 2h cruise of out-of-this-world scenery was one of our favourite parts of the trip.

On the way back we stopped for 10-15 min at the impressive Chasm, before driving back to Lake Kingston just outside of Queenstown where we spend the night.

Day 6

An hour drive to Wanaka took us through breathtaking scenery. That afternoon we did a small hike to Mt. Iron. We slept at Kidds Bush Campsite and it was Hamilton’s favourite campsite in NZ. And one of the most spectacular views we had ever seen.

Day 7

That day brought the hardest challenge yet- hike up to 1578 m tall Roy’s Peak. The hike was very challenging but totally worth it!

Day 8

We visited the famous Blue Pools early in the morning. We were not brave enough to swim in the ice cold waters, but there were a few heroes who did. 

The vegetation and landscape started to change as we drove more north and along the coast line making our way to Franz Josef Glacier.

Day 9

Unfortunately due to bad weather our helicopter ride was cancelled. We settled for an easy walk to the bottom of the glacier. This was the only spot we got slightly disappointed by. 

After that we drove to Hokitika Gorge, a stunning gorge with the bluest waters.

Day 10

It was our last full day in New Zealand and we spent it hiking around Arthur’s Pass. Devils Punchbowl Waterfall was one of the most impressive waterfalls we’ve ever seen.

We spent our last night at a campsite by Lake Person. 

We spent 10 days on our road trip and wish we had more time. Even if we managed to see everything we planned and spent a truly incredible time, the trip was a bit rushed. We think that 14 days would be ideal for visiting the highlights of South Island. 

However one could easily spend there a whole month and see a new place each day! 

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We Met Some Cool People During Our Trip

As we slept, cooked and lived in the camper van for the whole duration of the trip, we didn’t really have an opportunity to meet others. We spent this time enjoying our own company to the fullest.

However, we had few friendly chats here and there, on the campgrounds mostly. Everyone was so nice and friendly. Starting with camp- neighbours who lent us a tool kit, when one of hooks of the drawers in the van broke. To the camp ranger who calmly explained to us how to fill in the papers 3 times and still had to come back because we missed some information. We loved the passion our cruise guide in Milford Sound showed. Her knowledge of the area was impressive and positive attitude was contagious.

Our Favourite Memories From South Island

We created so many unforgettable memories on this trip it is really hard to pick one…

Our first morning of waking up in the van and seeing the blue waters of Lake Pukaki and the snowy peak of Mount Cook.

The exhausting, but simply incredible hike to the top of Roy’s Peak. This adventure challenged us in all sorts of ways, but it's till this day the best hike we ever did.

The cruise of Milford Sound with its countless waterfalls, and out-of-this-world scenery. 

Crossing the suspended bridges in the Hooker Valley while the wind was so strong, it nearly knocked me off my feet (and in fact knocked down our tripod with an expensive camera off :D).

Seeing and playing with alpacas for the first time in Te Anau. 

How We Were Able To Save On Costs 

We can’t deny that New Zealand is not a budget-friendly country. However, we think that every penny you spend on this trip is totally worth it. It’s truly a unique destination and despite the fact that it’s not cheap, there are ways of saving some $$ during travels.

1. Most importantly - choose a campervan over car + hotel. Try to reserve in advance if you can- some companies have lower prices for booking a few months ahead. There are many types of campervans and if you are on a budget, choose a smaller van. It won’t be as comfortable, but totally doable. You will still have everything you’d need to be self sufficient (like cooking plate, little sink, fridge etc.).

2. When choosing a camper van look at the type of the car and year produced. Vans burn a lot of gas which is expensive. The newer (or smaller) models burn a lot less gas than the old ones. 

3. Buy food from supermarkets & cook, instead of eating at restaurants. We had dinner outside only once during our 10 days trip. We prepared simple meals a few times a day in our van and were very happy with them. A week worth of food for 2 people in New Zealand costs around 100 Euro. That’s equivalent to 2 dinners out…

4. Avoid any expensive attractions. All of South Island's spectacular hikes are free. Most of the beautiful things you will see are free. 

The only attraction we spend money for was the Milford Sound cruise and we highly advise you to do the same. It’s about 40 Euro each and BEST MONEY SPENT ON THE SOUTH ISLAND. 

5. Get the DOC campground weekly pass and stay only at DOC or free campgrounds. Holiday Parks are very expensive. And to be honest they don’t even have the best views. You would most likely be parked in a small space in between other vans and countless people. DOC or free campsites have basic set up (like toilets and sinks) and are always set in the most beautiful surroundings.

6. Travel with a buddy! Thanks to this all the expenses you’ll have you’ll be able to share. Plus it’s always fun to have a good company on a trip.

7. Check out campervan relocations! This service allows you to rent camper vans free of charge in exchange for bringing the vans back to their original location. We wrote a full article about it, have a look here : https://voyageinstyle.net/tips/rent-a-campervan-for-free-discover-car-campervan-relocations/

South Island Hikes & Sights That You Cannot Miss

  1. Hike Roy’s Peak - it’s one of the best day-hikes in New Zealand. The views over Lake Wānaka and surrounding peaks including Mount Aspiring are breathtaking. The steep track zig-zags up the mountain immediately from the carpark all the way up to the top. You will hike through alpine fields and grasslands, passing countless cute sheep along the way. With beautiful Wanaka as the backdrop, you’ll climb from lake level to the 1578 m summit. Set for this challenging, yet extremely rewarding adventure.

  1. Hike the Hooker Valley which is by far the most popular activity in Mount Cook National Park. A beautiful, 10km return walk leads through breathtaking landscape. The valley is at all times surrounded by high mountain peaks and the tall Mount Cook proudly overlooking the lands lower.

  1. Tasman Glacier is often overlooked by tourists heading to the Hooker Valley and back. It’s roughly 10 km out of the main road and definitely worth a visit. In fact the Tasman Glacier and Lake are far more impressive than the Hooker Lake and Glacier. There is very little hiking involved. From the parking lot you have to climb up about 150 steps to the view point. It takes 5-10 minutes. From there the 360° views are simply awe-inspiring. The ice-blue glacier in front, the glacial-blue rivers behind and majestic mountains all around.

  1. Cruise in Milford Sound- It’s one of the most impressive sites within the Fiordland NP. A 16 km long fjord with countless powerful waterfalls, sky-gazing mountains and playful furry seals and dolphins. Although scenic flights are available, the grandeur of Milford Sound is best appreciated by boat.

  1. Drive from Queenstown to Glenorchy - the road passing along Lake Wakatipu is one of the most beautiful roads in the world.

  1. Hike to Bob’s Cove - easy 40 min hike next to an emerald green lake. The small path leads through a forest at first, then opens up to a small beach. If you continue walking, you will arrive at the bottom of a hill with amazing views of a double bay and mountains around. 

  1. Stop at Blue Pools- the incredible natural sight with river water of emerald colours.

  1. Lake Tekapo & Pukaki are one of the most beautiful places on the South Island. The gorgeous mountain peaks set against the turquoise waters of the lake make quite a picture. Especially between November- February during the lupin season.  

Advice For First-Timers Heading To South Island

Remember that it's about the journey, not the destination. The views you’ll see along your trip are some - if not the - most beautiful you’ll ever see. Each location is unique and deserves to be seen and discovered. Take your time, enjoy nature and the surroundings. 

A trip to New Zealand is an amazing remedy for our fast paced lives. Most of the places you’ll visit don't have cell reception at all. You will finally be able to completely switch off and relax. 

And be aware of sand flies :D 

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