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It’d be easy to spend over a month on the road exploring the beauty that is New Zealand’s South Island. But some of us aren’t blessed with all the time in the world are we?! It’s very possible to see the best bits in just a few weeks, so here’s a full guide to roadtripping on the ultimate 14 day South Island campervan route.
14 Day South Island Campervan Route – YOUR WAY!
This itinerary could be done in either direction. We went from Christchurch to Picton, but you could easily go the other way round. The benefit of starting in Christchurch is that it’s easy (and cheap!) to fly in there, and there’s lots of campervan rental companies near the airport. However, it’s important to note that if you start in Christchurch, you’re going to be hitting all the best bits of the 14 day South Island campervan route pretty early on. You don’t want to lose momentum! If you’re just roadtripping around South Island, it still makes sense to start (and end) in Christchurch. But, if you’re exploring North Island too, I’d recommend doing that first, and then exploring South Island from Picton to Christchurch. This just means you save the best till last!
14 Day South Island Campervan Route: Day by Day
Day 1: Pick up your van in Christchurch
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.
Make sure you’ve spent a day or two in Christchuch itself before you pick up the van. It’s an incredibly cool student/arty city, that makes for an very 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.
Once you’ve picked up your van, head off as early as possible (we left at about 9.30am to fit this all in). 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. It’s possible to drive up there, and you’ll need to in order to make it to your camping spot before dark. 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 defrost in – 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…
Drive back down Mount John and continue on to Lake Pukaki. 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 (SO IT’S FREE!) 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.
Day 2: Hiking in Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park – a real highlight of the 14 day South Island campervan route
Wake up early and enjoy the sunrise making that gorgeous orange glow on the snowcapped mountains around Lake Pukaki. Then jump in the van and drive towards Mount Cook Village. 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 and 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!
You’ve got a few options for camping tonight. Either drive back to the Lake Pukaki freedom camping spot, of if you want to break the next day’s journey to Queenstown a little, drive on to a freedom camping spot on the West side of Lake Dunsten. This campsite isn’t as picturesque as Pukaki (but to be honest, nowhere really is!), but it’s got public toilets and it’s pretty conveniently located for driving on in to Queenstown the next day.
Day 3: Wine Tasting in Queenstown and the Gibbston Valley
The drive to Queenstown is quite the adventure in itself. The views are spectacular, as you’ll drive down through the Lindis Pass and Gibbston Valley – New Zealand’s infamous wine region. Roll on in to Queenstown and get yourself a campsite for the night (we stayed at Queenstown Lakeview Holiday Park as it was about time we had a shower (!!!) and it was brilliant, with a perfectly central location. Now that you’ve got a base and no longer need to be a designated driver, cruise back to the Gibbston Valley with a Twilight Wine and Craft Beer tour with Altitude – the dream way to spend an afternoon, tasting the world’s best pinot noir! If you’re wanting a night out after this (which you probably will), you’ll be pleased to hear that no matter what day of the week it is, there’s always a party in town. Nomads Hostel organises bar crawls, so either join this or make your own! It’s a small enough town that it’s pretty easy to find a lively scene.
Day 4: Adrenaline Activities in Queenstown
With a slightly sore head from the night before, what better way to blow away the cobwebs than go jumping out a plane?! There feels to be no limit of adrenaline activities on the list of the best things to do in Queenstown. From the world’s original bungee jump at the AJ Hackett bungee, to the epic canyon swing, there’s something for everyone – and what feels like hundreds of agents in town ready to organise it for you. If you’re looking for the ultimate thrill, head up in a plane to up to 15 000 ft and jump out on a skydive.
My boyfriend organised a 12 000 ft skydive in Queenstown with NZone. This was a fair bit cheaper than the 15 000 ft option, and only cuts your free falling time by about 15 seconds. The excellent thing about the sky diving companies in Queenstown is that they’re super accommodating to your travel plans if poor weather stops you from being able to jump on the day you’d booked. He’d booked to jump above Queenstown, but after cloud called it off and we had to move on to our next destination, NZone organised for him to jump with Skydive Wanaka instead for no extra cost. He absolutely loved it!
Alternatively, if this isn’t your thing (it wasn’t mine..) and you’re visiting during Winter, hit the slopes for the day and go skiing or boarding. Queenstown is famous for its skiing, in the two main areas of the Remarkables and Coronet Peak. Every day you’ll see smiling skiers returning to town after a day on the slopes. You can even try out night skiing on Coronet Peak at certain times of year!
NO DRIVING TODAY!
Day 4: Visit the most beautiful place on Earth – Milford Sound
Queenstown is the main gateway town for day trips out to Milford Sound. Often voted the most beautiful place in the world, Milford is guaranteed to take your breath away. Whatever the weather (and do remember that this is one of the wettest places on the planet), a day trip here is an absolute must do when visiting South Island.
We did a one day Coach and Cruise Nature Tour with Southern Discoveries, which was the perfect way to explore the area. Expect to leave Queenstown early, and enjoy the scenic drive to the Fiordland. You’ll stop off at a few gorgeous sights along the way, before boarding your scenic cruise through Milford Sound. It really is the most beautiful place I have ever visited.
If you’ve got all the time in the world, it’s possible to self-drive to Te Anau, a small town at the edge of the Fiordland, then jump on a boat from there to cruise the epic Milford Sound. This allows you the freedom to stop whenever you want, but should only be undertaken by experienced drivers – particularly if visiting in winter.
Day 5: Wind down in Wanaka
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. We camped at *** which was ideal.
Day 6: Hike up Roys Peak
After your chilled day yesterday, today’s your opportunity to get active and climb the epic Roys Peak Track. To make the most of this 4-6 hour hike, get up early and enjoy sunrise from the slopes of the mountain. Read all about the hike here.
After your tired legs have valiantly returned you to the carpark, it’s time for a lengthy afternoon drive over to the West Coast. The first hour of this journey is truly stunning, so it makes up for the long time spent behind the wheel. Aim to get all the way to Fox Glacier town, and get an early night before another sunrise mission.
Day 7 and 8: Marvel and the mirror lake at Lake Matheson
Just outside of the Fox Glacier township you’ll find the beautiful Lake Matherson – New Zealand’s best mirror lake. Get up early and drive to the Lake Matheson car park, and get yourself round to the Jetty Lookout (20 minutes walk from the carpark) to watch a beautiful sunrise over the snowcapped mountains. The full loop walk around the lake takes about an hour and a half to complete and is pretty easy – it’s the perfect way to start the day!
After this, head over to Fox Glacier itself for an afternoon hike. Note: there’s been some problems with rock fall on the road leading up to the glacier, and at the time of writing this post (July 2019) the road had been closed for a few months for maintenance.
In the late afternoon, continue the drive North along Glacier Highway to Franz Joseph township. After you’ve got camped for the night, head straight to The Helicopter Line to arrange your Heli Hike for the next morning. If you’re visiting in summer or during school holidays, you’ll need to call ahead and book this a few days in advance. You can read all about the incredible experience that is a Franz Joseph Heli Hike here. Allow two days in your itinerary for this – it’s very possible that you won’t be able to do the Heli Hike straight away due to poor weather, so increase your chances by increasing your time spent there!
Days 9 and 10: The Best of the West
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 14 day campervan route on South Island wasn’t exactly my favourite. I’d breeze over it fairly quickly if you’re short on time. You’ll need to stop and stay overnight somewhere along the way, as it’s probably too much driving to manage all in one day. Eventually, you need to finish Day 9 by driving right up to the Abel Tasman Area. You can use either Motueka, Kaiteriteri or Marahau as a base for the night, before you hike the following day.
Day 11: Abel Tasman National Park Hiking
More amazing coastal views here, along the 60km Abel Tasman 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 (it’s worth every penny though!), we were keen to save money, so here’s what we did:
We freedom camped in Motueka on the night of Day 9 (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 just do the track in one direction. This allows you to just 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.
After a day’s gorgeous coastal hiking, drive down towards Havelock, as the gateway to the Pelorus Sounds and Marlborough Region. On the way, you’ll find 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.
Day 12: Glowworms and Farm animals!
After a brief morning’s hike (there’s lots of small hikes that depart from the Pelorous Bridge Campsite), 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 glowworms. It’s the perfect place to spend a more chilled day.
Day 13: Hike the Queen Charlotte Track
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 park 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).
Day 14: The end isn’t near, it’s here: Picton or Christchurch
On your final day, you’ll either be taking the short drive along the scenic highway to Picton for a ferry to the North Island (it’s SO windy!), or you’ll be heading back down towards Christchurch. We went to Picton and got on the InterIslander to head to Wellington, but if we’d just been sticking to the South Island, our route would have taken us back south down the East Coast to Christchurch, stopping off at Kaikoura on the way.