When we first knew we were going to New Zealand, we immediately knew we had to make our way down to the South Island. And through lots of research, we figured out that renting a campervan was going to be the best way to get around the island. And even though we have shared some of our tips for driving the South Island and our favorite New Zealand foods, we also wanted to share the basics of how we even got around this beautiful island!
Want to know exactly what we packed for 5 months abroad in 3 different climates? See our complete packing list here.
Day 1: Arriving on the South Island
We flew into Christchurch the night before we planned to leave so that we could get our van first thing the following morning. We did not venture far from our hotel as we knew tomorrow was the beginning of an adventure. Instead we ate at a local restaurant, grabbed a beer, and tried to enjoy our last night of sleeping on a real bed at Jailhouse Hostel.
Day 2: The road trip begins! Christchurch to Franz Josef
We picked up our van outside Christchurch Airport. It was a pain to get there via public transit so we just took an Uber. We used JUCY to rent our van. It was the most affordable but was as basic as can be, and we ended up having a few problems with the actual van too. The stove would quickly run out of propane, the water pump leaked, and the fridge was inconsistent at best (spoiling our award-winning cheese at worst!). When traveling around for as long as we were, these became major issues. We’d recommend using a different company if you can afford it!
After starting the drive–remind you, New Zealanders drive on the opposite side of the road as the USA–we went right to the grocery store to stock up for the next week. We tried to keep things simple: lots of snacks, bread, and cheese type things as we were not going to be cooking complicated meals. After stocking the car, we drove to Franz Josef for our first night in the van.
We stayed at the rainforest campground site. It seemed like it would be fun as it had a busy bar and lodge but we were too tired to partake. We made grilled cheese sandwiches, drank a glass of local wine, and went right to bed.
Google Maps Projected Drive Time: 5 hours
Actual Drive Time: 7 hours
Day 3: Franz Josef to Moke Lake
We hiked up to the Franz Josef Glacier first thing in the morning. It was cold and rainy but it was a beautiful path. It is also very flat making it a good hike for all skill levels. Since it was raining, there were waterfalls everywhere. The glacier is cooler in person than in pictures or videos. It was almost surreal to see the melting glacier directly in front of us. After this, we drove to Queenstown.
This was an incredibly beautiful drive, with windy coastal roads. It may have been our best drive of the entire trip. After a few hours of driving, we stopped to get whitebait patties at Curly Tree Whitebait Patties stand. They were delicious and gave us a much needed break.
We can admit now, and even with how pretty it was, we messed up. This drive was too long, much longer than anticipated, and it completely wiped us out. We wished we had stopped half-way. After an entire day of driving, we finally made it to Moke Lake.
This was a beautiful campsite. It was a big site but there were only 3 or 4 cars there for the night as it was still low season. It was very bare bones, no showers and only a rustic drop toilet for a bathroom. However, the view, my goodness, the view. There were an endless amount of stars all over the sky, it was absolutely stunning.
Google Maps Projected Drive Time: 5 hours
Actual Drive Time: 8:30 hours
Day 4: Queenstown
Joe’s birthday! We treated ourselves–more on this topic later–to a more luxurious day in Queenstown to celebrate Joe’s 30th. We were training for the Angkor Wat Half-Marathon so we wanted to take advantage of the free day and go for a long run.
Queenstown, with its lakes and mountains, has a gorgeous running path that we used to get our 9 miles in. And in the way it should be, we finished at Fergburger to satisfy our need for protein after the workout. Even though Fergburger is overrated and way too busy, the burgers were still pretty damn delicious and really hit the spot.
After a much needed hot shower–thank you Crowne Plaza Queenstown–we went out for dinner at Botswana Butchery. It was mediocre, fresh fish and the like, but overpriced and nothing worth seeking out in our opinion. Queenstown was definitely a fun place to be, lots of people out and about all day and night.
No long drives on this day!
Day 5: Queenstown to Te Anau
After a late start, we decided to spend the day winery hopping. We went to Gibbston Winery for a tour. It was a fun experience to see how a small winery operates. New Zealand is very famous for certain types of wine (sauvignon blanc and pinot noir were the main ones in this region) and it was great to get an insider perspective on how it is made and stored. We even bought 8 bottles to ship back to the USA!
After this, we stopped at Akarua Winery for a lovely lunch. We had a salad and a charcuterie plate, both of which were delicious with our wine. Alicia’s favorite rosé of all time was at this spot (and this girl knows her rosé) but they sadly did not have large enough quantities in store for purchasing. After deliberating on what to do next, we decided to make the drive to Te Anau. With our long drives recently, we wanted to give ourselves a little bit of a break. This was only a 3 hour drive, which we were incredibly grateful for.
Te Anau was a big town for the South Island. It has all of the touristy things you could need and was the last place to get gas before heading to Milford Sound–there are lots of reminders of this but this was actually true, get gas here! The lake was especially beautiful. The campsites were very expensive and not that nice, but it was our only option so we toughed it out.
Google Maps Projected Drive Time: 2 hours
Actual Drive Time: 3 hours
Day 6: Te Anau to Milford Sound
We made sure to be up nice and early for the drive to Milford Sound. It was a long winding drive on Milford Road so plan accordingly. It takes nearly twice as long as the KM distance would indicate. In addition, there were many buses on this road, so we were constantly moving to the side to let them pass. However, and I know we say this a lot on this post, it was one of the prettiest drives on the South Island, so be prepared to pull off and take lots of pictures.
We split this drive up by stopping at Key Summit along the way. We hiked this beautiful trail and were grateful to be out in nature and not in the car. This is a very busy trail as it is part of one of New Zealand’s Great Walks. However, the views were stunning, it was still a great hike and definitely worth the stop.
With plans to kayak the next day, we stayed at the Milford Lodge to be as close as possible to the kayak launch point. Milford Lodge was one of our favorite campsites, you could even rent private cabins though we stuck with our van. We made dinner in their massive kitchen and Joe went to bed–the long drives were getting to him. However, the lodge had a penguin expert give a talk that night, Alicia went and loved it!
Google Maps Projected Drive Time: 2 hours
Actual Drive Time: 3 hours
Day 7: Milford Sound to Mossburn Country Park
As Alicia went over so well, our Milford Kayaking experience was absolutely unforgettable. We loved every minute of it. We were out on the sound for two hours and even had dolphins swim underneath our kayaks! After we finished, we drove to Mossburn Country Park. It was a great little campground. We even got to feed the sheep and alpacas! We were incredibly exhausted from kayaking so we made dinner and just hung in the van.
Google Maps Projected Drive Time: 2:30 hours
Actual Drive Time: 4 hours
Day 8: Mossburn Country Park to Taieri Mouth
We drove to Invercargill and immediately went to the Southernmost Starbucks in the world. Hey, we’re not ashamed to admit it, we like Starbucks. And after spending the last week drinking instant coffee, we felt we deserved it. After our coffee and WiFi break, we drove down to Bluff. This is the last town on the main land South Island. It had beautiful views and we stopped in for lunch at Oyster Cove, restaurant with 180 degree views of Stewart Island. The food was average, we got salmon and blue cod fish and chips, but the setting was worth it.
After the drive up, we arrived at our campsite, Taieri Mouth Beach Holiday Camp. This campsite was nothing special for it’s amenities. However, the location was one of the best we saw on our campervan trip. On a beautiful beach with stunning sunset views, we loved this one. We spent as much time on the beach as possible when we were here. Running, night walks, photo shoots, this was a perfect setting for everything we wanted.
Google Maps Projected Drive Time: 1:30 hours to Invercargill, 2:30 to Camp
Actual Drive Time: 2:00 hours to Invercargill 3:00 hours to Camp
Day 9: Taieri Mouth to Moeraki
In the morning we headed to Dunedin. It was a nice little city. It has a college town feel but with some historic buildings. We needed supplies–water tablets, topping up our phones–so this was a necessary stop. The city also has a Cadbury factory so obviously we went in and stocked up on some chocolate!
After this, we made the short drive to Moeraki Holiday Park. Moeraki was one of our favorite nights not only because of Fleurs Place, but because of this little beach town. We drove up to the top of the town and found a light tower that not only had beautiful views, but also had seals and penguins all over it’s cliffs! After this, we headed to dinner which took up the rest of our night.
Google Maps Projected Drive Time: 0:30 hours to Dunedin, 1:00 to Camp
Actual Drive Time: 1:00 hour to Dunedin, 1:30 hours to Camp
Day 10: Moeraki to Lake Tekapo
We went to the Moeraki Boulders in the morning before leaving. It was absolutely a waste of time. To us, it just looked like rocks in the ground. We quickly left and made our way to Lake Tekapo. An absolutely gorgeous lake next to Mount Cook. We stayed at Lake Tekapo Holiday Park, which was next to the lake but it was still one of our least favorite sites. It was overcrowded, expensive, and just had a bad vibe to it overall.
That night, we went to the Earth & Sky Stargazing Conservancy, which was an unforgettable experience. We went out for the tour around midnight–way past our bedtime–and had a guide show us the skies in one of the only dark sky reserves in the world. We learned about constellations in the Southern hemisphere and even looked through the conservancy’s high powered telescopes!
Google Maps Projected Drive Time: 2:40 hours
Actual Drive Time: 4 hours
Day 11: Lake Tekapo to Mount Cook
We drove from Lake Tekapo to Mount Cook. Mount Cook was absolutely gorgeous, and the views were incredible. However, it was also incredibly busy with tourists. We slept in because of our late night stargazing experience, so we did not get to the mountain until midday. The entire place was completely full when we arrived. We asked the rangers for advice on a hike and they just gave us the most popular hike, The Hooker Valley Trail. It was nice but it seemed like every tourist at the mountain took the rangers advice and were on this hike as well.
The hike itself was still very pretty, with beautiful views of Mt. Cook, but a disappointment overall. After our hike, we quickly left the site and drove to Fairlie Holiday Park. It was a nice site but we were so tired at this point of our trip. We went to bed nice and early–a common theme from here on out.
Google Maps Projected Drive Time: 1:00 hour to Mt. Cook, 1:30 to Camp
Actual Drive Time: 1:30 to Mt. Cook, 2:00 to Camp
Day 12: Fairlie to Kaikora
We drove up to Kaikora from our campsite. We took Route 1, which famously has been shut down since the earthquake in 2016, and we have to say, this road should still be avoided. There was major construction as soon as we got close to the town.
The town of Kaikora was still recovering from the devastating earthquake. It was a shame because we feel like we really would have loved it. It has a little seaside town feel to it with chip shops, small bars, and it was absolutely gorgeous. Hopefully they can recover soon! We stayed at Kaikora Top 10 Holiday Park, made some dinner, and went to bed.
Google Maps Projected Drive Time: 5:00 hours
Actual Drive Time: 7:00 hours
Day 13: Kaikora to Outside Christchurch
Woke up nice and early for our whale watching experience! This was something we were so excited for and was a major reason we made it up to Kaikora. We booked with Whale Watch Kaikora and loved the company. It was expensive, but they were very informative and best of all, WE SAW TWO SPERM WHALES RIGHT NEXT TO EACH OTHER. The entire boat–staff included–were all blown away, it was one of the most beautiful things we have ever seen.
After the sperm whale experience, the boat took us around and we saw dolphins, seals, and penguins. An expensive day but they certainly delivered results. After this, we made our way down to a campsite near Christchurch. We were very grateful this was our last night in the van.
Google Maps Projected Drive Time: 3:00 hours
Actual Drive Time: 4:00 hours
Day 14: Last day on the South Island
We dropped our bags off at the hotel and made it back to JUCY to drop our van off. Christchurch was another city recovering from the 2016 earthquake. We really liked the city. It has a very Brooklyn/cool/hipster feel to it that we were very into. The construction was everywhere here but we also hope they can get on their feet soon!
We were still training for our half-marathon here, so we went for a long training run on this day too. Afterwards, we went to Sal’s Pizza–pizza was surprisingly not bad–and spent the night in our hotel room just enjoying the bed.
My biggest pieces of advice for those looking to drive the South Island would be two things. First, slow down. Speed wise yes, but more so in regards to the sites you want to see. All of the sites and little towns have something special to it, and we felt like we were missing out by rushing off to the next one. Besides making yourself tired all the time, you won’t get to fully experience the South Island if you are always rushing and always driving.
Second, TREAT YO-SELF! Sleeping in a van was not ideal, but it was the best way to get around the South Island. But that can wear you out. So, rent a hotel room every few nights, go to dinner, whatever would give you a little pick me up when you need it. With that being said, all of these towns have lodges and hotels, so they are not hard to find. It can be the difference between loving every minute of this experience or wanting to just sleep the whole time. Do it.
However, even with these negatives, this was well worth the trouble. The campervan was the absolute best way to see the South Island. We were able to see so much, and it was some of the most beautiful sceneries in the entire world. The South Island has been set up for this system, we were routinely waving to other campervans as they drove by as everyone was in this together. And it was not an exaggeration, the drives themselves were equally stunning to many of the main sites we went to. We truly loved this experience.