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Here’s the ultimate campervan route on South Island of New Zealand! South Island is guaranteed to give you highlight after highlight, with some of the most amazing scenery, roads and adventures that I’ve ever experienced. There’s such a variety of epic things to do in New Zealand, so this post will take you through each place on the perfect campervan route on South Island.
Key Stops on the Campervan Route on South Island
Christchurch: the starting or finishing point on the campervan route on South Island
Christchurch is an incredibly cool student/arty city, that makes for a great interesting starting point. Following the tragic 2011 earthquakes, the city has been almost entirely rebuilt – and they’ve done it amazingly. There’s tons of awesome street art, and a great vibe with lots of cool coffee shops/bars/independent cafes. Our favourite was called Little High Eatery – not so much a food court, but a foodie court (!) filled with cuisines from all over the world. You can probably see most of the city in 24 hours, but allow longer if cities are your thing!
We picked up our campervan from Travellers Autobarn in Christchurch. We went for a Kuga, 3 sleeper van (even though there was just two of us), and this suited us perfectly.
2. Lake Tekapo
After leaving Christchurch, you’ll have a pretty big drive to reach your first stop at Lake Tekapo (approximately 3 hours). If you’re needing to stock up on food for your campervan on the way, there’s a massive supermarket, Countdown, at Ashburton.
Lake Tekapo is BEAUTIFUL. A milky blue lake, backed by the epic Aoraki/Mount Cook mountain range, and overlooked by Mount John. First, navigate yourselves to the Good Shepherd car park to peer past this gorgeous chapel on to the lake.
After spending a short while here, head on up Mount John to the University of Canterbury Observatory. The views from up there over the lake are breathtaking, but wrap up warm as the winds are pretty breathtaking too. There’s a gorgeous café to warm up – Astro Café. This forms the start of the International Dark Sky Reserve, but I’ve got an even better spot for you to see this a bit later on.
3. Lake Pukaki (my favourite camping spot on the whole campervan route around South Island!)
This has got to be my favourite place that we camped on the whole of our campervan route on South Island. Just a 40 minute drive from the top of Mount John takes you to Lake Pukaki Overnight Camping Spot, a freedom camping area at the southern point of the lake. I’ve heard it can get pretty busy there in summer, and I can see why.
Once the sun goes down, take some camping chairs and walk towards the lake away from the other vehicles. Since you’re still in the Dark Sky Reserve, you’re in for a real treat. Try to be there when there’s a new moon, to make sure there’s less light for seeing more stars.
4. Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park
The 45 minute drive alongside Lake Pukaki north to Mount Cook is another highlight (I told you, highlight after highlight!). When you arrive in Mount Cook village, head straight to the information centre to find out which tramping tracks are open are recommended for that day. We did the Kea Point Track, which took us about 1.5 hours return from the village. We had wanted to do the Hooker Valley Track, but this was closed at the time we visited.
After, I’d really recommend driving over to the Tasman Glacier Car Park, and climbing up (15 minutes) to the Tasman Glacier Viewpoint. If you’re lucky, you’ll see icebergs floating past you, and it’s quite the sight!
The drive to Queenstown is quite the adventure in itself. The views are spectacular, as you’ll drive down through the Lindis Pass. We stayed overnight on the way at a freedom camping spot on the west side of Lake Dunsten, just to break up the journey.
Queenstown is the adrenaline capital of New Zealand, so be ready to push those limits! Cruise the most beautiful place on Earth, Milford Sound; taste the world’s best wines at Gibbston Valley, or jump out of a plane at 15 000 feet. Read more all about things to do in Queenstown here.
After your adrenaline junkie thrills in Queenstown, it’s time to chill out in Wanaka. The drive over the Crown Range is truly epic, but make sure to do this during the daytime – the roads are WINDY and STEEP. We stupidly did this in winter in the evening, and got really stuck up there in the snow, with sheet ice. Queenstown’s sleepier sister, Wanaka promises gorgeous scenery and great hikes. Lake Wanaka is totally beautiful, and don’t forget to visit the infamous ‘That Wanaka Tree’, as part of a lovely stroll along the water. If tramping is your thing, Roys Peak is incredibly rewarding. Read all about this 5 hour climb here.
7. Fox Glacier
It’s time to head on over to the West Coast and jump on the Glacier Highway. Whilst Fox Glacier isn’t quite as epic as Franz Joseph just up the road, it’s still well worth visiting this area for an overnight stop (and not just because it’s on the way). Just outside of the Fox Glacier township you’ll find the beautiful Lake Matherson. Visit at dawn or dusk on a clear and still day for New Zealand’s best mirror lake. We headed there for sunrise in perfect conditions to find this…
The full loop walk around the car park takes about an hour and a half to complete and is pretty easy – it’s the perfect way to start the day!
8. Franz Joseph
My favourite activity on the whole campervan route on South Island – the Franz Joseph Heli Hike. Take a three hour tour up onto the glacier to climb high on the ice through the valley. It’s a truly unique and unforgettable experience. Read all about it here! Allow at least two days in your itinerary for this as poor weather can delay your hike.
9. The West Coast
Driving North of Franz Joseph promises some epic views along the Great Coast Road. There’s less to do in this area, but as always, there’s still some gorgeous walks. Drive straight from Franz Joseph to Hokitika Gorge, to see some seriously blue glacial melt water from a swing bridge.
Spend about an hour here, then head on to the Pancake Rocks – a series of awesome pancake shaped rock formations, along a 40 minute circular tramp. From here, it’s another 40 minute drive North to Cape Foulwind. It’s one of the wettest places on Earth, and it certainly lived up to expectations when we were there. There’s a big coastal walk, or you can drive round to the Southern end of it to see the Seal Colony. They’re super cute! Maybe we were just unlucky with weather, but this section of the campervan route on South Island wasn’t exactly my favourite. I’d breeze over it fairly quickly if you’re short on time.
10. Abel Tasman National Park
More amazing coastal views here, along the 60km Abel Tasman Coast Track. You can use either Motueka, Kaiteriteri or Marahau as a base for this, and there’s a variety of ways that you can enjoy this stunning walk. For us, after having spent so much $$$ on the Franz Joseph Heli Hike, we were keen to save money, so here’s what we did:
We freedom camped in Motueka (there’s a freedom camping spot right in town, with toilets), then drove up to Marahau in the morning. Drive as far north as you can in the village, and you’ll find a car park right by the start of the Abel Tasman Coast Track. From here, a gorgeous walk is the return trip to Apple Tree Bay (3.5 hours return). The beach at this Bay is huge, and a perfect picnic lunch spot.
Alternatively, there are lots of companies that organise water taxis if you want to do the track in one direction. This allows you to do sections of the track, as much or as little as you’d like. These are really easy to organise locally, in any of the base towns mentioned above.
11. Queen Charlotte Track
From Abel Tasman, drive South East towards Havelock, as the gateway to the Pelorus Sounds and Marlborough Region. On the way, you’ll find a small campsite at Pelorus Bridge. It’s worth stopping overnight here, not only to break the journey, but also for something a little unexpected. After dark, take the Elvy Waterfall track from the campsite (30 minutes return) to find pure magic – thousands of gloworms inhabit the rocks around the waterfall. The glowing blue dots around this sizeable waterfall are like something from a fairytale. Note, this campsite has no wifi or phone signal… a time away from reality!
Driving on from here takes you to another awesome campsite near the start of the Queen Charlotte Track. Smiths Farm Holiday Park has so much character – a gorgeous utilities building with hot showers, washing facilities and a kitchen/dining/living area equipped with a beautifully warming wood burner fireplace. This campsite boasts welcome muffins on arrival (!), adorable farm animals that you can feed, and another walk to a waterfall with even more gloworms.
From Smiths Farm Holiday Park, it’s a 10 minute drive up to the start of the Queen Charlotte Track up at Anakiwa. Drive as far north as you can along the road through the village, and you’ll find a small car part next to the track. Similar to the Abel Tasman track, water taxis are required if you don’t want to double back on yourself on your hike. The track itself stretches 70km of stunning coastline through the Sound, dotted by secluded bays, and it’s possible to walk a section of it in a day. If you’re short on time, a nice walk is to Davies Bay and back (approximately 1.5 hours return).
And next you’ll probably be heading to Picton to jump on the ferry and get to North Island. Enjoy the most beautiful sights you’ll ever see!