Nine Days. 2104 kilometres. Two girls. One beast of a motorhome. It’s safe to say that our traverse around the South Island of New Zealand (or Middle Earth as it is more famously known) was one of the most spectacular adventures I’ve been on to date.
It is hard to believe that the very country I live in is home to some of the world’s most idyllic landscapes and untouched beauty spots. From the grandeur of the snow-capped mountains to the iridescent turquoise of the lakes, the splendour of the starry night skies to the vibrancy of the rolling green hills, the South Island of New Zealand never ceases to blow my mind with its impeccably diverse, unspoilt beauty.
Our epic road trip began in Christchurch, the biggest city on the South Island of New Zealand. As I flew in over the Canterbury Plains, I could hardly contain my excitement. My window was already filled with the staggering view of bright turquoise rivers snaking through a sea of infinite mountains. If this was any indication of the beauty I was about to witness on the South Island, I knew I was in for a treat.
Once we arrived in Christchurch, we went to pick up our transport for the road trip. We weren’t travelling around the South Island in just any old vehicle- we had a luxurious Wilderness Motorhome to call our humble abode for the next nine days! This was the first time I had ever been in a motorhome, which meant I was equally as excited as I was nervous about driving the beast around (big shoutout to my fabulous travel companion Rachelle for braving most the driving).
As soon as our roadtrip was underway, I finally got to see why travelling in a motorhome really was THE most ideal way to see New Zealand’s South Island. When you put aside the impossibleness of parking and having to empty a stinkin’ septic tank every day, the perks of travelling in a fully self-contained vehicle were endless. For example, throughout our whole trip, we never had to eat out. Why on earth would we when we could whip up a delicious dinner in our kitchen and eat it whilst overlooking a GLACIER!? We also didn’t have to spend our time pulling over for emergency side-of-the-road bathrooms breaks- there was always a toilet two steps away. But the best part BY FAR was having the ability to wake up in the most incredibly remote places, surrounded by nothing and no one.
Our first stop on our road trip was the unbelievably beautiful Lake Tekapo. Just as the sun had made its descent below the horizon, we arrived at our stop for the night, a secret little spot by the lake that we’d been recommended by our very handy Wildernessts Camping Directory. The area was virtually deserted, barring one little van parked about 100 meters away from us. It was dark, so we couldn’t see much, other than the moon illuminating the lake right in front of our eyes. As we ate dinner we just sat there speechless. There was something so magical about spending the night in the middle of nowhere.
The next morning, we woke up and ate breakfast to an unadulterated view of the the sun rising over the mountains, causing the water to glisten. As we headed out from our camping spot and drove around the lake, I could finally see the incredible blue shade of Lake Tekapo in all of its glory. We headed up to Mount John, where we stopped at the Astro Cafe for a quick caffeine boost before hitting the road. The coffee, the custard slice AND the views from this place were literally out of this world (sorry, couldn’t resist the cheeky pun)!
Lake Pukaki/ Mount Cook:
Just when I thought I would never find a body of water quite as astonishing as Lake Tekapo, we encountered Lake Pukaki. Not only was it as strikingly blue in colour, Lake Pukaki one-upped Tekapo with it’s magnificent background of the mighty Mount Cook and surrounding snow-capped peaks.After stopping at Lake Pukaki for a very scenic lunch in our motorhome, we entered the winding road to Mount Cook National Park on a dreary afternoon. Clouds hung low in the sky, concealing Aoraki/ Mount Cook in a blanket of fog. To compensate for our lack of mountainous views, we did score a park directly under a glacier- this was definitely a good enough reason for a sneaky champagne toast.
We watched the light fade from the sky, and slowly but surely, twinkling stars began to peek out from behind the clouds. After spending the evening dancing underneath the stars, we retreated to our Wilderness Motorhome for what turned out to be a rollercoaster of a night. The wind picked up throughout the night, and we spent the early hours of the morning shaking in the force of it. Although I was eternally thankfully we weren’t sleeping in tents, I was still convinced our vehicle was going to topple over- never had I experienced winds so ferocious!
As we woke up at sunrise, we were greeted with the magnificent sight of a clear sky and could now see the magnificent peak of Aoraki/ Mount Cook peering through the horizon. Although it was still blowing a gale, we decided to brave the elements and take the Hooker Track to see Aoraki/ Mount Cook in its full glory. I spent the hike feeling like I was going to take off into the sky like Mary Poppins, but the risk was worth it. I can see why the Hooker Track is considered to be one of the best day walks on the South Island. The path itself provided an ever-changing landscape,as we crossing over giant swing bridges, followed bubbling rivers and traversed across grassy fields, concluding in an unsurpassable view over Aoraki/ Mount Cook.
Our next destination on our South Island roadtrip was a little more inhibited than our previous stops. Our adventures in Wanaka began with jamming six hitchhikers in to the back of our motorhome- a rather hilarious experience in itself. With an endless expanse of lake and a background of rugged mountains, it’s easy to see why Wanaka is quickly rising up as a tourist hot spot. Unfortunately, the tourism kick has meant that freedom camping is no longer allowed in the area, so we had to settle on a lakeside campsite without much of a view. Unless you count the extremely creepy stuffed mammoth that our motorhome overlooked. I’m still having nightmares.
With rain and thunder keeping us indoors in the evening, we woke up early the next morning, eager to make the most of our day here. We made our way up to the famous track that leads to to Roy’s Peak- a six-hour uphill battle that was thankfully made worthwhile by the stunning views over Wanaka from the top.
On our first day in Queenstown, we quickly slipped into full-blown tourist mode (a mode that is almost impossible to avoid in the most touristic town in New Zealand). Our first stop was a trip up the gondola to the Skyline Queenstown. We were in the adrenaline mecca of the country, so of course I couldn’t leave without doing something to get my blood pumping. Two years ago, on my twentieth birthday, I had experienced my very first bungy jump off the nearby Kawarau Bridge. Today, I was going for round two- this time at Aj Hackett’s ‘The Ledge’ Bungy! As I ran up and swan-dived 43 meters off the ledge, not only did I get the adrenaline rush of a lifetime, I also got to enjoy the most picture-perfect views over Queenstown on my way down. Incredible views + adrenaline… Could I ask for a better way to spend the morning?!
Once our tourist activities for the day were complete, we drove out of Queenstown and on to the access road up to the Remarkables. Here, we found the ULTIMATE picnic spot with literal 360 views over Queenstown and its surroundings. Dramatic mountain ranges and rolling hills on one side, snaking aqua rivers and glistening lakes on the other- this place was a dream come true. We sat here for hours, drinking wine, feasting on cheese and crackers and soaking in the beauty of the sun setting beneath the horizon.
That night, we parked up in an idyllic spot overlooking the twinkling lights of Queenstown, and spent hours gazing at the sprinkling of stars above the mountains.
Fiordland/ Milford Sound:
After a scenic three and half hour drive from Queenstown, we reached the world-heritage wilderness region of Fiordland. We parked up in a DOC site right next to a glistening icy blue river, encapsulated in every direction by stunning mountains. As the sun fell beneath the horizon, the clear sky quickly turned in a dazzling galactic display.
Early the next morning, we had a mystical drive from our campsite to the world-renowned Milford Sound. As we made our way along the windy roads, mist hung low to the ground and the grass glimmered with dew. The sun began to rise, casting light on the peaks of the surrounding mountains.
Once we reached the harbour, we caught a Mitre Peak Cruise, which took us on a two-hour guided tour through the striking fiords of Milford Sound. Although it was my second time seeing Milford Sound, it felt like I was visiting a completely new place. The first time I had been here, it was dark and gloomy, with a thick fog looming in the air and covering the peaks of the fiords. This time, there was not a cloud in the sky- a very rare occurrence for one of the wettest places on earth! The sun shone brightly and the water sparkled like diamonds. Funnily enough, I personally preferred Milford Sound in the less-than-ideal weather. The fog and dark clouds just seemed to set the atmosphere, making it feel like something akin to Jurassic Park. At least with the sun out, we could sit outside on the cruise and fully embrace the beauty of the place!
After a rather long seven hour drive day from Milford Sound over to the West Coast, we were absolutely delighted to reach our camping spot for the night on Haast Beach. It was literally everything I could have dreamed of for a beach camping spot. We parked right up on the beach, just in time to watch the sky light up with colour as the sun descended beneath a horizon of crashing waves. We made a bonfire and sat on our camp chairs, eating dinner and gazing out at the golden expanse of driftwood-filled beach in front of us. Once the light had faded, the sky evolved into a sparkling wonderland of stars. We made s’mores on the fire, then sat in awe as the Milky Way appeared before our eyes.
As we set off early in the morning en route for Arthur’s Pass, we made a quick morning stop at Fox Glacier. The sun was shining and there was not a cloud in sight- such a rare sight for the Wild West coast. Deciding to take full advantage of the weather, we hopped on a helicopter flight (thanks to the Helicopter Line) that took us up and over Franz Joseph and Fox Glacier. I had visited Fox Glacier two years before and had seen the glacier from afar. Seeing this natural phenomena from above was a whole new experience. It was absolutely mind-blowing to see the magnitude of these glaciers! To top the experience off, we got to land on top of the glacier itself and frolic on the ice. It was not a morning I will forget in a hurry.
As we made our way along a road that twisted and turned through magnificent mountain ranges, overflowing streams and through never-ending grassy fields, I quickly remembered why this was one of my favourite drives on the South Island. We parked up for the night right in the middle of Arthur’s Pass, where we positioned ourselves in a grassy field next to a babbling stream, surrounded by picturesque peaks,which turned all sorts of colours as the sun set and rose. The spot would have been perfect, had it not been for the pesky sandflies. I really didn’t know what the big deal was about these little critters until they devoured me alive and I spent the entire night itching so much I shook the entire motorhome. The pain was almost worth spending the night in such a beautiful spot.
Our motorhome sojourn through the South Island of New Zealand was certainly an experience I will not forget in a hurry. Perhaps it’s time for you to come to Middle Earth and start your own adventure?
PS: Stay tuned for a practical guide to roadtripping New Zealand’s South Island, coming to the blog soon!