To find a place more spectacularly diverse and more stunningly beautiful than the South Island of New Zealand would be an impressive feat to say the least. A road trip across the land of the long white cloud, as it is fondly known, is a journey one must take at least once in your lifetime. For nine days, my friend and I set off in a motorhome to explore the highlights of New Zealand’s South Island. Although we just scratched the surface of this glorious landmass, during our road trip, we attempted to see and stay in the most picturesque (and when possible, uncrowded) places we could possibly find. You can read all about it here in my Roadtrip Diaries: A Magical Journey through Middle Earth.
I’ve have compiled this guide for anyone planning to roadtrip across the South Island of New Zealand! So gear up for an adventure, and take heed to the wise words my friend Bilbo Baggins once told me:
“All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost.”
There are three options I would recommend to travel around the South Island of New Zealand: a car equipped with camping gear, a campervan, or a motorhome. New Zealand is all about the incredible scenery, and there is no better way to immerse yourself in the beauty of these landscapes then camping right in the midst of them!
For budget travellers:
If you are on a tight budget, your best option is to a hire a cheap rental car from rent-a-dent and camp your way around the island. As I mention below, you’ll find many cheap DoC campsites around New Zealand to pitch a tent, most of which offer basic facilities and are a lot more affordable than private campsites. Another option is to look at a service such as Transfer Car, which offers free or very cheap one-way trips in cars and campervans in order to relocate the vehicle to its intended destination. The downside to this service is you have to book in at the last minute, and are obviously limited by the duration of the rental and the set destination of the vehicles.
For mid-range travellers:
Campervans are a great option for those with a slightly more generous budget. Having a vehicle that you can drive around in, sleep in and cook a meal in makes life on the road pretty convenient, and tends to be a lot more comfortable to sleep in than a tent (particularly when the New Zealand weather gets a little ominous). Keep in mind if you don’t have a certified self-contained campervan, you are technically limited on where you can camp as you’ll need a site that offers toilets, showers and running water. You can find basic, affordable campervans from companies such as Jucy Rentals, or again, you might be lucky and find one comes up on Transfer Car.
For luxury travellers:
A fully self-contained campervan or motorhome is by far the most convenient and comfortable way to travel around New Zealand’s South Island, which means it is the most expensive way of getting around. The perks of having a self-contained vehicle are endless- not having to compromise your dignity with side-of-the-road toilet stops, being able to pull over and make a cup of tea whenever you feel the desire… The list goes on. The best part of course is being able to wake up in incredibly remote places, surrounded by nothing and no one. By travelling in a self-contained vehicle, you have the ability to stay in places without facilities, which means you can utilize any of the 340 free camping spots available across New Zealand!
On our road trip down south, the Freestyle 2 from Wilderness Motorhomes become our home on wheels for nine days. The Freestyle 2 was the perfect size for two people, but could have accommodated up to four at a squeeze. It had a king-sized bed which dropped down from the roof, a massive table and seating area (which at one point we filled with six hitchhikers). A bathroom with a toilet and shower, a fridge, oven and stove were also included. The motorhome also had the luxury of heating, which definitely came in handy (even in summer), and was even equipped with a DVD player. Although a motorhome may not be cheap to hire, ( in fact it probably is the equivalent in cost to hiring a car, staying in hotels and eating meals out), how often does a hotel stay give you the chance to wake up to this?:
And eating out at a restaurant is never going to have views quite as spectacular as this:
Before you Go:
Before embarking on your road trip across New Zealand’s South Island, I would recommend downloading an app called Campermate before your trip. It is a really useful resource for locating free, paid and DoC campsites, as well as facilities you may need such as dump stations, fuel stations, even where you will find Wifi! The other app I would recommend downloading is Maps.Me, particularly if you don’t have a dedicated GPS. Unlike Google and Apple Maps, Maps.Me allows you to download offline maps and can direct you to places even when you haven’t got access to the internet. Plus, it’s free!
Where to Go:
During our roadtrip, we stayed in a mixture of the following:
- DoC Campsites– These are run by the New Zealand Department of Conservation and range from basic campsites, which only provide toilet facilities and are free to stay at, all the way up to serviced campsites, which have a wide range of facilities and cost $15 per person. You can read more about the different types of DoC campsites here. Most of the DoC Campsites we stayed at were in very picturesque locations, and although there are generally quite a few vehicles around, you still get the feeling of being in the wilderness.
- Freedom Campsites– New Zealand is one of the few countries that still allows freedom camping to occur, with over 340 free campsites across New Zealand that you can take advantage of. Note that freedom camping is not allowed everywhere and is often only allowed for self-contained vehicles, so make sure you check signs before parking up somewhere for the night. All the free campsites we stayed at were recommended to us by the ‘Wildernessts’ directory that we rented with our motorhome. These were the most amazing places we stayed, largely due to the fact these spots aren’t publicly advertised so we had them virtually to ourselves (and I can’t give away their exact whereabouts for this reason!).
- Paid Campsites– All the paid campsites we stayed at were by far the least picturesque and the most overcrowded. Unfortunately, there are some tourist places on the South Island such as Queenstown and Wanaka that strictly do not allow freedom camping, and if you want to be anywhere close to the town center, staying at one of these paid sites in necessary. However, in general, I would save your pennies and opt for the other two options (unless, of course, lots of facilities and a powered campsite are a priority).
This was the route we took:
Lake Tekapo- Shoreline Freedom Campsite
This stunningly beauty spot is right on the shoreline of Lake Tekapo, just steps away from the most turquoise water you have ever seen. The camp spot is super secluded, with no facilities around to taint the pristine natural beauty, yet is still only a short drive away from the Lake Tekapo township. Prepare to have your breath taken away when you wake up in the morning and watch the sunrise over water!
What not to miss:
A short drive away from the campsite, you’ll find a turnoff to Mount John. For some reason you have to pay $5 to go up the mountain, but don’t let this put you off. Make your way up Mount John and head to the Astro Cafe for a coffee and some delicious baked goods with a view that is literally out of this world!
Mt. Cook- White Horse Hill DoC
Another stunning spot, here you will wake up to views of the majestic Mount Sefton Glacier, and in clear weather, the mighty Aoraki/ Mount Cook, New Zealand’s tallest mountain. You won’t find a power hook-up here, but there are basic bathrooms, water, and a dump station. There is also a kitchen area where you can cook, and a common area which is a good place to meet other campers. It is a popular site and it does get pretty full, but even so, there is still a real sense of freedom to the place.
What not to miss:
This campsite is right at the Hooker Valley Track trailhead, which is known as being indisputably the most scenic hike in the whole of the South Island of New Zealand. You’ll cross swinging bridges, pass by glacier lakes, and witness the most awe-inspiring views of Aoraki/ Mount Cook imaginable. If it’s a clear day, this walk is a non-negotiable!
Lake Wanaka- Lake Outlet Holiday Park
Cost: $16pp with power
This sweet little camp spot is right on Lake Wanaka and the Clutha River, about a 12-minute drive away from the town center. It does get quite busy, and your actual site may not have any view (in fact, the only view we had was of a decaying stuffed mammoth!). But rest assured, the glistening water with the mountainous backdrop is only a minute stroll away. This spot is great if you are after a conventional camping experience, but if you are craving something secluded, this probably isn’t going to be your favorite spot. The site itself has all the facilities you would need : showers, a kitchen and a laundry for a small additional fee, and the staff at reception are super friendly and helpful.
What not to miss:
If you are going to do one hike at Lake Wanaka, make it the hike up to Roy’s Peak. The hike itself may not be the most exciting one in the world- prepare yourself for a monotonous uphill battle in the form of a dirt trail winding up a hill. But I promise, the view from the top really does make the trek worth it. Here, you’ll find truly unbeatable views over Lake Wanaka and the surrounding mountains. The hike takes about five to six hours all up, so make sure you pack plenty of snacks and water!
Queenstown- Lakeview Holiday Park
Cost: $25pp or $30pp with power
Prepare yourself- this campsite basically feels like a parking lot. All the vehicles are lined up on rather small sites, so you shouldn’t have any trouble making friends with your neighbours. On the upside, the facilities are very good, and cost nothing extra, and the staff at reception will help you book in any touristy activity that your heart desires. The major drawcard for the holiday park is of course its location- just a five-minute walk into town. By staying here you really are in the heart of Queenstown (which for us, made the steep price and lack of privacy worth it).
What not to miss:
In a short five-minute stroll from the campsite you’ll reach the Skyline Gondola, which can take you up a mountain and provide you with a rather unforgettable view over Queenstown and the majestic Remarkables. Of course, like everything in Queenstown, the gondola ride comes with a hefty price tag, but for first time visitors, I would say the experience is worth it. Up the top, you’ll find a range of activities– enough to fulfil any thrill-seeking enthusiasts- such as bungee jumping, luging, mountain biking and zip lining. After all, Queenstown is the adrenaline mecca, so you’ve got to do something exciting whilst you are here! My recommendation would be to come up here in the late afternoon and stay for sunset- watching Lake Wakatipu reflect golden hues and then seeing the twinkling lights of Queenstown appear is a truly magical experience.
Queenstown- Remarkables Road Freedom Campsite
Remarkable is the perfect adjective to describe this location. No matter which way you look, you will find something absolutely remarkable to drool over. The Remarkable Mountains to your left, Lake Wakatipu all in front of you, and the Kawarau River to your right. There are no facilities nearby, and the drive up is steep and gravelly, so be sure to visit a dump and water station before you head up. Once you get there you will have a hard time leaving.
What not to miss:
Keep driving up the mountain until you see a little hill with a goat trail, just before you bend around the corner. Head up the hill and you’ll find the most spectacular 360° views, making for the perfect spot to watch the sunset and have a self-appointed happy hour!
Fiordland National Park- Deer Flat DoC
This little gem of a spot is located right by the side of a dazzling icy blue river and is surrounded by majestic mountains. Staying at this site gives you easy access to the Milford Sound, which is only about a 45-minute drive away. Although you might share the space with other campers and some pesky sandflies, this campsite really does have the feel of being in the middle of the wilderness, away from all signs of civilization. On a clear night, the lack of light pollution makes for a spectacular starry sky. Take note that are no facilities on site except a couple of port-a-potty toilets, and you get fresh water from the stream if you need it. Definitely no phone reception out here!
What not to miss:
If you are camping here, chances are you’ve come to see the mystical Milford Sounds. A boat ride on the Sounds is an obvious must-do, but if you have time, check out some of the other beauty spots in area. You could take an extremely picturesque walk through Mackinnon Pass, cross ancient valleys carved by glaciers, check out Sutherland Falls or enjoy the emerald waters of the Clinton River. If it is a a VERY still day, make sure you stop by Mirror Lake to see apparently ‘stunning’ reflections (every time I’ve gone it just looks like a duck pond so I’m yet to witness it in its full glory)!
Haast – Beach Freedom Campsite
Rating: 4/5 (Due to Sand Flies)
This stunning, peaceful spot is a prime example of what beach camping should look like. With multiple turn offs to the beach available to camp at, you should easily be able to find your own little secluded area to spend the night. The long, seemingly never-ending beach is decorated with all kinds of interesting driftwood, which can be very useful if you want to start a campfire or if you are feeling creative and want to build a tepee. A cozy fire, s’mores, a stunning sunset that falls into a dazzling night sky filled with stars, the soothing sound of crashing waves… There’s only one thing that stops this site from being absolute perfection: those bloody sand flies! Bring insect repellent- LOTS of it!
What not to miss:
An hour and a half away from Haast you’ll find the unique natural phenomena of Fox Glacier. If you are willing to splash out for a once-in-a-lifetime experience, take a helicopter ride over the glacier and see it in all its magnitude. For the adventurous souls, you can even hike on the glacier! Keep in mind these activities are very weather dependent, and as the weather on the west coast is very unpredictable, you are best to book these things in the morning.
Arthur’s Pass – Mt. White Bridge Freedom Campsite
Another stunning, secluded, secret campsite that will allow you to experience all the natural beauty and freedom of Into the Wild. Right in the middle of Arthur’s Pass, you are surrounded by picturesque peaks, which are the perfect backdrop for all the colours of the sun set and rise. This camping spot is located alongside the Waimakariri Riverside, right near the train tracks. The calm, babbling water and the occasional rhythmic roll of a train will have you falling into a trance where all your cares and stresses simply melt away. There are no facilities nearby, and there are some sneaky sandflies about, but in my books, beauty always trumps the small inconveniences of life!
A big thanks to my dear friend Rachelle for coming on this adventure with me and helping to write up this guide! Take a peek at the video she made of our roadtrip through New Zealand here.