Empty roads, loose restrictions on freedom camping, and unbeatable scenery: traveling around New Zealand is best done by campervan. Starting in Queenstown, we made our way up to Christchurch exploring the South Island, before crossing the Cook Strait to Wellington. From there, we headed north through rugged National Parks, thermal pools, and beaches, only to end our journey in the city that hosts 31% of the countries’ population: Auckland.
The small city of Queenstown is often dubbed “The Adventure Capital of the World” due to the abundance of adventure sports: bungee, rafting, skydiving, zip lining, Queenstown has it all. We tried out zip lining at the Ben Lomond Scenic Reserve offering great views over the city and Lake Wakatipu.
Apart from all the adventures, Queenstown is also the gateway to Milford Sound. In a straight line, the two are only 75kms apart, but due to the mountains the journey by car takes a mere six hours one-way. We opted for a long 13-hour bus tour from Queenstown, making stops at multiple lookout points along the way. The last part of the road into Milford Sound is spectacular, as the surroundings change from grasslands into wild mountainous terrain.
Unfortunately, apart from being unique Milford Sound is also one of the wettest places on earth: the warm air from the East Coast of Australia hits the mountains, meets the cold air, which often results in drizzling and pouring rain. It made the 90-minute boat ride a bit of an anticlimax, as we didn’t see much of the famous rock walls and mountain peeks. Still, we did manage to get some company from a couple of dolphins along the way.
After four days in Queenstown, we drove north along the West Coast towards Greymouth, passing beautiful lakes, glaciers, and mountain streams. From Greymouth, it is a two-hour drive to Christchurch over the mountains via Arthur’s Pass. This spectacular mountain pass, (mostly) closed during the winter months, passes through various settlements and limestone formations like Castle Hill.
Christchurch, unfortunately commonly known because of the devastating 2011 earthquake, is still in the process of rebuilding. Various initiatives, the most notable being the Re:Start Mall, an innovative shopping mall built from shipping containers, bring the color and life back into the city.
In Christchurch we also swapped our car for a campervan to explore the remainder of New Zealand. As high season was ending, campervan prices were very tempting, and we decided to try and travel around for 10 days in a campervan. New Zealand is a perfect place to do this: apart from Auckland, roads are mostly empty, there are ample of free places for campervans to park for the night, and cheap diesel made it a cost-effective and flexible way of moving around.
From Christchurch, we drove a good four hours to Picton to board the ferry to the North Island, docking in the capital of Wellington. Despite being the capital, the city is rather small, but charming thanks to its location around Wellington Harbour and its mountains. After an afternoon stroll in the city we drove north towards Tongariro National Park.
Scenery changes quickly in New Zealand: one minute you’re driving through lush green valleys, the next moment you’re surrounded by absolutely nothing but a hostile looking mountain peek. This was definitely the case in Tongariro National Park.
One big thing to do here is to hike the Tongariro Alpine Crossing; a 19km hike through the mountains. Despite it being sunny in Taupo, the closest town to the National Park, the park officials deemed weather to be too hostile to attempt any hike. As an alternative, we decided to spend two hours rafting the Tongariro River. Back in Taupo we decided to get another adrenaline rush by swinging of a 40m cliff, similar to a bungee jump but in a sitting position. Scary!
The area of Rotorua is known for its thermal pools, mud baths, and geysers. We visited Wai-O-Tapu, home to various strangely colored lakes, from orange to bright green. After sightseeing, we relaxed by taking a mud bath and jumping into a sulfur pool at Hells Gate.
Another highlight in this region are the glowworm caves at Waitamo: a series of caves home to worms which attract food by shining a light from their behinds. In the dark, this makes for an incredible sight, as the cave seems to have thousands of stars. We opted to explore the caves in a special way by abseiling down a cliff, tubing through the caves, before rock climbing back out. Another activity worth doing!
Near Rotorua lies the town of Matamata, close to the movie set of The Lord of the Rings. For a hefty entrance fee of 80 NZ$ (55$) we went on a tour through Hobbiton, the created town built in the grassy hills, home to the Hobbits. It was extremely impressive to learn about the tricks of how this movie set was created, and the enormous amount of effort in creating the town in the first place.
In the mean time, we mostly camped in the wild. As our camper was self-contained, we had everything we needed to go by without using any facilities: barbequing, eating, sleeping, we always had our home with us. Despite this comfort, it was always nice to pay a few dollars to take a shower somewhere else, as the bathroom in the campervan was not very spacious.
As our time in New Zealand was slowly running out, we still had to see what the Auckland region had to offer. We started at Cathedral Cove on the Coromandel Peninsula: a beautiful cove only reachable by foot. Luckily, this was also the sunniest day during our trip, with temperatures reaching the mid-twenties.
Apart from Cathedral Cove, this area is also home to the Hot Water Beach. Here, hot springs located underneath the sand boil the waves washing ashore. Find the right spot on the beach, dig a hole, and enjoy a warm bath: it is a surreal but not-to-miss experience.
Up until this point, driving the campervan wasn’t too much of a problem, but going into Auckland traffic got worse. As we wanted to walk around the city center, we had to navigate a seven-meter long vehicle through busy one-way streets, making quick turns trying to find parking. Eventually, we succeeded, and had a nice afternoon stroll through the city. One the way out, we stopped at up-scale Mission Bay, and the viewpoints of Mount Eden and Cliff Rd.
Our time in New Zealand turned out to be just enough, as on our last day we still managed to visit some of Auckland’s wineries, see a black beach at Muriwai, and finally see the iconic kiwi bird at the Auckland Zoo. After returning the campervan, our home, we left for the airport looking back on a fantastic fifteen days in New Zealand.
We, Mark & Herta, are currently backpacking through Europe, and eventually planning to settle in London. Beyond that? The possibilities are endless.Read Mark & Herta’s full story.