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Home » The ultimate road trip guide to New Zealand’s South Island

The ultimate road trip guide to New Zealand’s South Island

We had big travel plans for 2020 and unfortunately that couldn’t happen so we decided to make the most of our time here in New Zealand and hire a campervan to travel around the South Island. It really made us appreciate our own country and what it has to offer. Whether you’re from New Zealand or anywhere else in the world I can guarantee you’ll be blown away by the memorising landscape and outdoor adventure.

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I’ve always wanted to do a campervan trip in Europe or North America (which was always our plan and still is – hopefully…) but like everyone in their early 20’s covid really ruined our travel plans. Not going to lie, I was pretty upset when I realised we couldn’t spend our year overseas. So instead of moping about it, I gave myself 24 hours to be sad and during lockdown came up with a list of ideas (both business and fun) that I wanted to achieve this year. The fun travel idea we came up with was to rent a camper van and travel the South Island. Once we were free to travel within our own country campervan prices dropped significantly. I mean they were crazy cheap, this van only cost us $45 NZD a day! We thought of the things we love to do which included skiing, hiking and eating (we really like eating and think its an important part of all travel). Queenstown is packed with the most amazing coffee stops, bakeries, markets, bars and restaurants (I’m currently writing a full blog post about this. So stay tuned!)

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From stunning lakes to snowcapped mountains, delicious food and tones of action-packed activities the South Island of New Zealand really has everything you need. Road tripping could possibly be one of the best ways to experience the amazing scenic views. 

We started our trip in Queenstown and finished in Christchurch but you could definitely start in Christchurch and finish in Queenstown or do the full loop it would depend on how much time you have and what route you wanted to take.  We used the company Thl and hired a 3 birth Britz which was perfect for 2 people. We think if we did it again we would hire a 4 birth.. Only because by the end we were completely sick of packing up the bed everyday. The van was great though, we could take it almost everywhere – plus it was self contained with a kitchen and heater. We ended up cooking around 80% of our meals because it was so easy and much cheaper.

Day 1: Queenstown

We decided to only spend one night in Queenstown as we spend another two weeks here after our road trip. I would recommend 1-3 days in Queenstown then another 1-2 in Wanaka as they offer almost every type of outdoor activity you could think of.  I’ve grown up with a family home in Queenstown so I know the area particularly well, a few things we love to do there include.

  • Hiking in Glenorchy or Bobs Cove
  • Bungy jumps
  • Blue Kanu for dinner
  • Halo for breakfast (I would recommend the sweet corn fritters)
  • eBiking around Mote Lake
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Day: 2-3 Arrow Town – Omarama

Next we drove to Arrow Town where we did a hike by the Historic Arrow Town Chinese Settlement.  

Things to do in Arrow Town

After our hike in Arrow Town we carried on and ended up in Cromwell for a homemade lunch by the lake. We carried on through to Omarama and spent sunset at the Omarama Hot Tubs then parked up for the night at the Haruru bridge free camping site.

Day 3: Omarama – Tiwzel

After spending the night in Omarama my dad told me about these funky clay cliffs and that we had to check them out if we were close. To get to the Clay Cliffs, turn onto Quailburn Rd off SH8 and then onto unsealed Henburn Rd. The cliffs are on private land and there’s a donation box at the gate where you pay $5. They were pretty extraordinary, they were created from layers of silt and gravel deposited by ancient glaciers almost 4 million years ago. The layers were then comprised and up lifted by geological activity – as high points began to be eroded, sharp pinnacles were left behind. It’s a very small walk from were you park up to the cliffs but can be a little slippery so definitely wear covered shoes.

We then drove to Twizel and stayed at the camp ground so we could plug in and empty the van. That’s another thing to think about when hiring a campervan – if it’s self-contained like ours you have to pay to stay in camp grounds and plug it in every 2-3 nights. Camp grounds ranged from $25-$40 NZD. 

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Day 4: Twizel – Ohau

Day 4 we drove to Ohau – which is a completely stunning lake in the Mackenzie Basin. We decided to splash out and spend a night in the lodge. This was around $110 NZD per person for an average room which included a 3-course dinner and breakfast so it felt like we got our moneys worth. We spent the day skiing at Ohau Ski Field – you can get the shuttle from the lodge up the mountain. If you’re here in summer theres also incredible mountain biking trails, hikes and fishing.

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Day 5-6: Ohau – Mount Cook

I was most excited for this day – Mount Cook is truly beautiful. We were beyond lucky to be there on such a clear day in winter. We we first looked at the photos Andrew thought I’d photo shopped that mountain – that’s how clear it was! However, we were both a little stressed as we didn’t notice the fuel light go off moments earlier (luckily we found a small fuel station to fill up in the village.)

We arrived to the Hooker Valley track around lunch time –  just in time for a delicious homemade soup! We spent the night in the carpark and headed over to the Sir Edmund Hillary Museum the next morning.

Activities in Mount Cook

  • Hike the Hooker Valley Track or Mueller Hut Route
  • Two years ago we skied the Tasman glacier which was one of the things I’ve ever done. You can also Heli – hike, kayak, boat or walk the glacier.
  • Visit the Sir Edmund Hillary Museum
  • If you’re visiting in summer be sure to check out the lavender farms just before you turn into Mount Cook Hwy.
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Day 6: Mount Cook – Lake Tekapo

Lake Tekapo is unbelievably beautiful and we stayed at the camp ground for two nights – this was $40 per night.

Things to do in Lake Tekapo 

  • Lunch at the Greedy Cow 
  • Walk to the Church of the Good Sheppard
  • If you’re visiting in summer be sure to check out all of the amazing Lupin flowers
  • If you visit in winter – ski at Round Hill
  • Mt John University Observatory / Star Gazing
  • Spa at Tekapo Springs
  • Burgers at Our Dog Friday
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Day 8-10: Tekapo – Methven

We did a big drive to Methven today so we could ski Mount Hut the following day – we stayed in a campsite close to town. (unfortunately, it was too windy and skiing didn’t happen) so plan B we decided to drive up through Authors pass. Be sure to stop for lunch at the Fat Beagle Café in Darfield.

Not long after you enter Authors Pass you’ll find Castle Hill – you might recognize it from the Disney movies Narinia. We freedom camped at Hogs Pass and did a small hike the following day. 

The last weekend of our trip we spontaneously decided to head up to Hamner springs. It’s almost like a mini Queenstown – so beautiful and full of activities.

Day 11 – 13 Hamner Springs

Hamner Springs is a resort town known for its thermal hot pools with mineral waters. It’s surrounded by beautiful mountains, trails and small ski fields.

Things to do in Hamner Springs

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Hamner Springs – Christchurch

Christchurch is full of amazing eateries and activities – we both have family and friends in Christchurch so we did a lot of eating out. A few of my favourite spots were…

We then flew back to Queenstown for a family holiday however, you could definitely do a full loop and come back through the West Coast or Fiordland.