New Zealand: a lush, rugged and sprawling landscape, the country boasts an extensive yet accessible terrain to explore. With two islands, North and South, you may feel overwhelmed, a sense of ‘Where do I even begin?’ can take hold of you upon arrival. There are many ways to explore this beautiful country, and guided tours can often be beneficial for those unsure of which route to take, or perhaps who want to stick to a pre-planned itinerary and fit as much as they can into their trip. For me, the best way to see NZ was to get behind the wheel of a camper van (or car, but there is much more flexibility when you have a bed and a stove crammed in the back) and navigate this new and exciting adventure at my own pace.
New Zealand is the textbook backdrop for a camper van adventure. The country was one of the last major land masses in the world to be settled on by humans, and roaming through it, you do get a real sense of undiscovered wilderness waiting to be explored. The South Island feels especially wild and remote, with only 23% of the country’s population residing there. The roads are long and open, with fellow cars on the road seemingly few and far between. It is easily navigated, and a destination that is guaranteed to ignite the wanderlust in tourists and backpackers alike.
The simplicity of the roads on the South Island are just one benefit of a self-driven tour. There are plenty of van rental companies to choose from at various locations up and down the country. There is an abundance of freedom involved, and whichever route you decide to take, I promise you will be blown away by the sights you will encounter.
I did my own NZ road trip on a minuscule budget (I was fresh off the back of a year backpacking in Australia), so the following is a list of affordable, budget-friendly activities and sights to do and see in each location I visited. Hopefully, this guide can inspire you for your own New Zealand road trip.
First Stop: Christchurch
A city still reeling from the destructive earthquake of 2011, Christchurch makes no attempt to hide the struggles it has gone through after the devastation. If anything, the entire city feels like a symbol of what can be possible when communities come together. A wander through the city can have you stumbling across magnificent street art; beauty being found in a place where disaster once wreaked havoc.
Christchurch was where we began our journey, but before we picked up our camper van and started living our life on four wheels, we took a couple of days to explore what the city had to offer.
Container Mall on Riverside (once known as The RE:Start Project): A fantastic mini retail space made up entirely of shipping containers. Developed in the years after the 2011 earthquakes, the space is a symbol of a city who did everything it could to get back up and running after devastation. The Container Mall breathed life back into a struggling community, bringing a plethora of foodies and retailers together to kickstart something positive. Definitely worth a visit, they have some fantastic food there (the wood-fired pizza was my personal highlight), and even if you have no money to shop (I definitely did not!), it’s a great place to have a wander and marvel at the great work they’ve done here.
Keeping my minimal budget in mind, other highlights of mine included the Canterbury Museum — entry is free, they simply ask for a donation. There is also Hagley Park; a magnificent 407 acres of open greenery, with bicycle hire and the Botanic Gardens which are beautiful all year round.
We left Christchurch in our new home on wheels and drove the easy route (just over 50 miles) to a campsite we found using the Wikicamps app (a lifesaver during this road trip). We stopped here because we wanted to cook dinner before it got dark, and we were itching to see what the first night in the van would be like. We stayed overnight at Rakaia Gorge Camping Ground. There are showers and toilets there which is essentially all we needed. The best part was that we unintentionally stumbled upon the stunning Rakaia Gorge River and its picturesque surroundings. There are breathtaking views here, and the turquoise colour of the water was almost dreamlike. There were also some great hikes along the Rakaia Gorge Walkway, weather permitting!
The unassuming, quiet town of Geraldine was not initially a point of interest on our route, however we needed to stop off for supplies and a leg-stretch, and here felt like as good a place as any. There are some lovely cafes here to stop at if you drive through, however Geraldine’s biggest selling point has to be the Giant Jersey. I doubt it really needs explaining, it does exactly what it says on the tin. Sadly, the knitwear shop in which said Giant Jersey was once housed is no longer trading, but you can still see the record-holding fashion statement on display at the Kiwi Country Complex in Geraldine, should you ever find yourselves in town.
Probably one of my favourite spots in New Zealand, Lake Tekapo is gorgeous; crystal clear water reflecting every mountain peak thats surrounds it. We parked our van overnight at Lake Tekapo Motel & Holiday Park, in a prime position that directly overlooked the lake. The location is 10/10, even if the facilities aren’t the best. I would definitely suggest talking the difficult but rewarding walk up Mount John. You can also drive up there using an alternate route, but I would wholeheartedly recommend the walk, where you can stop and explore at your own pace and take in the panoramic views of Tekapo. We visited Tekapo Springs, which offers three outdoor thermal pools, overlooking Lake Tekapo, nestled within the mountain landscape. We went in the evening, as the sun was setting, and it was like something out of a dream. Although they are man made, the pools feel natural — mimicking the shapes of the region’s lakes (Ohau, Pukaki and Tekapo) and each having an individual temperature ranging from 36-40 degrees celsius. After a long day of driving and hiking up the mountain, it was so relaxing to sit back in the hot water and take in the breathtaking scenery. Bonus that it was a very cold night, so it felt even more amazing being in the steaming waters with the bitter air around us.
Head just over 70 miles further South, and you will find the quirky town of Oamaru. Call me crazy, but I never expected to stumble upon the Steampunk capital of the world in a quiet corner of New Zealand’s South Island. There is an air of eccentricity about the town, which is apparent in the local shops and restaurants, but most distinctly in Oamaru’s iconic building: Steampunk HQ. Unlike the more traditional museum we visited in Christchurch, Steampunk HQ boasts a weird and wonderful array of all things old and decrepit, with a new and unusual lease of life breathed into each and every one (there is a Metagalactic Pipe Organ there, you guys!). The best part about this place was the newly installed ‘Portal’, which upon us stumbling out of it, slightly dizzy, prompted a wide smile from a guy who worked there: “Did you enjoy that? It’s pretty trippy, ey?”
A room with mirrored walls, floors and ceilings, covered entirely in thousands of tiny bright lights beaming different colours, you become immersed in the vortex as strange and hypnotic music pulses through the walls. He was not wrong.
Many people might drive quickly through this town, but it’s charm deserves to be checked out if you’re passing though.
Continuing South down the coast, and the next most obvious stop, for us, felt like Dunedin. A town with a rich Scottish heritage, it has similar vibes to Edinburgh; an air of the cool and the new, mixed with a high regard for the old. It is a real ‘student city’, and has a huge array of bars and nightlife as well as cafe culture to boot. It chucked it down for the duration of our stay here, however the sun crept out on our final day, and a trip to the Otago Farmers Market was in order. Whatever the weather, every Saturday of the year you can find fresh, local produce here, and the food on offer is nothing short of delicious.
A historic gold-mining town, Arrowtown is one of the most charming places I have ever had the pleasure of visiting. An array of modern retail spaces and quirky cafes intersperse seamlessly into a valley steeped in history. Arrowtown is a quiet and perhaps lesser known place on the South Island — possibly why it has retained its enchanting qualities. You can learn more about the history of gold mining during your stay by visiting the partly reconstructed site of the Chinese Settlements. In contrast, you can then walk the picturesque pathways and uncover the many delights down Arrowtown’s hidden side streets and narrow alleyways. Dorothy Browns boutique cinema is definitely worth seeing. We didn’t watch a film there (budget problems, you know how it is), but the owner kindly let us have a peek inside this fantastically unique movie theatre, where cheeseboards are served at intermission.
I can still barely believe I drove it, but the route to Wanaka from Arrowtown is one of the most spectacular roads you will ever drive on! Via the Crown Range, New Zealand’s highest road, you will want to pull over every five minutes to admire the view. Stay cautious whilst driving, as the roads are windy and steep, and take extra care in winter when the roads may be icy.
Upon arrival in Wanaka, you will be treated to more spectacular views of lakes and fantastic mountains. A bit more bustling and modern than sleepy Arrowtown, although still fairly quiet, Wanaka was a perfect place to relax and take in the scenery. It was also home to my obscure favourite attraction: Puzzling World! Surprisingly a lot of fun, this attraction kept us occupied on a drizzly day, and induced lots of laughs and some mild frustration at the more difficult puzzles.
I did say that one of the beauties of a road trip is that you aren’t restricted, and you can make up the route as you go. Here, we ended up going back on ourselves as we travelled to Queenstown from Wanaka. We didn’t mind, as the drive was packed full of New Zealand’s epic scenery, however if you are a bit short on time, perhaps plan your own route a bit more conveniently than we did.
Perhaps one of New Zealand’s most famous locations, Queenstown boasts an array of adrenaline-fuelled activities. If throwing yourself on bungee ropes from the top of mountains sounds like your thing then Queenstown is the place for you. Not so much of a glutton for adrenaline as I am for a physical (but safe) challenge, I loved the strenuous hike up Queenstown Hill (it should be called Mountain, not Hill, FYI), and the views at the top were awesome and were a great reward for the hard work it took to get up there.
If you have the budget for it, Queenstown is prime location to dig out the ski goggles and hit the slopes. Our budget lacking, we still enjoyed our hikes and general wandering around the town. The food in Queenstown is some of the best I’ve ever had. The infamous Fergburger exceeded all expectations. Words cannot explain the beauty of the burgers from that place. We always joke that if we could afford to, we would take the long haul fight back to New Zealand just for one of those bad boys. Honestly, believe the hype, those burgers are unreal.
You can take the Skyline Gondola up to the Stratosfare Restaurant, perched on the same hill that the bungee jumping takes place. If bungee jumping isn’t for you, there is the option to enjoy a ride on the Skyline Luge if you fancied an activity that was a bit more tame. Adrenaline junkie or not, there will be something in Queenstown to suit your needs.
Although fairly brief, here’s hoping that this rough guide has shed some light on New Zealand’s epic South Island. New Zealand is a spectacularly beautiful country in all seasons, and easily explored in any way you choose. Enjoy your adventure!