Hands down, without a doubt, the best way to take in New Zealand is to rent a campervan and explore it on your own. There’s something about having the freedom to travel at your own pace, only visiting the sites you want to see, all in the comfort of your own vehicle. If you love a good road trip, outdoor activities, nature, and jaw dropping scenery, than a trip to New Zealand should be at the top of your “must-see” lists.
New Zealand is split between two islands, the aptly named North and South Islands. Each island offers a slightly different experience, with the South Island boasting most of the top natural attractions. It’s because of this that we chose to spend our entire two weeks there, road tripping the majority of the island. Due to its relatively small size, two weeks was enough time to see just about all the major highlights the island has to offer.
Below I’ve put together a two-week road trip itinerary for the South Island that allows you to hit all the major sites on the island while maximizing your time. You can travel in either a clockwise or counter-clockwise direction starting from Christchurch. Which ever you choose won’t make much of a difference. But one thing’s for sure, road tripping New Zealand’s South Island is one of the best travel experiences you’ll have. Crank up the sound system and let’s get going!
Day 1: Christchurch
Upon arriving in Christchurch, your first order of business is to pick up your campervan. Don’t underestimate the amount of time it may take to get your vehicle from your rental company, as there can be line ups, final payments to process, and inspection of the vehicle to go over before you head out on the road. Make sure to pick up the free AA Go See Discover Stay guides for each of the regions you’ll be exploring (an excellent resource full of maps, things to see and do, and places to stay) and the free Department of Conservation Campsites information booklet for simple and budget priced places to stay (some sites are even free!). Pick up enough groceries to last you a few days and let the journey begin!
Day 2: Drive to Mount Cook
Your first full day on the road will entail a lot of driving as you make your way south and then inland to Mount Cook. Stop and stretch your legs at the stunning Lake Tekapo, reputed to have the cleanest air in the southern hemisphere. You’ll be delighted by beautiful turquoise blue waters, snow-capped mountains in the distance, and the Church of the Good Sheppard to enjoy it all from. Continue driving to Mount Cook, arriving in the early evening hours. Park yourself at the White Horse Hill DOC (Department of Conservation campsite) for the next two nights, the closest you can camp to Mount Cook.
Day 3: Explore Mount Cook
You’ve been sitting in a vehicle for most of the previous day, so it’s time to get the blood flowing through your veins again. The Aoraki Mount Cook National Park is a World Heritage site with 140 peaks, covering over 70,000 hectares of alpine scenery. Its presence is commanding with peaks towering overhead and has been featured prominently in the Lord of Rings movies, for good reason. There are various ways to experience and explore Mount Cook, from helicopter rides to ski planes, to tramping and hiking. No matter which one you choose, you won’t be disappointed. For budgetary reasons, we choose a self-guided hike of the Hooker Valley track (3 hours return) starting right in the White Horse Hill campgrounds. The path was clearly marked, not strenuous in the least, and had us meandering our way over rocks, across rivers, along mountainsides, and concluding at the Hooker Glacier terminal lake with views of the glacier’s edge. Pack a lunch and take a break at the lake, soaking in the incredible scenery.
Day 4: Oamaru
After waking up to the backdrop of Mount Cook, pack up your vehicle and head south towards Twizel and then back east to Oamaru. It’s another full day of driving, but with every twist and turn in the road you’ll be amazing at the scenery ahead. You’ll arrive in Oamaru around early afternoon and will have enough time to take in the charming coastal town. The beautifully maintained buildings are a throwback to the Victorian Era, crafted in striking white local limestone known worldwide as Oamaru Stone. The town offers a variety of eateries (if you’re already tired of cooking your own food in a campervan), boutique retail shops, artisans, craftspeople, and an authentic German bakery. Stick around until after dark to witness Oamaru’s biggest attraction, and the world’s smallest penguin species, the Oamaru Blue Penguin Colony.
Day 5: The Moeraki Boulders and Dunedin
Start the day making your way south along the eastern coast towards the university city of Dunedin. Along the way, stop to check out the Moeraki Boulders, a geologic wonder formed about 65 million years ago dotting the length of the shoreline. It’s best to visit these boulders at low tide (early morning hours), as high tide could not only get you soaked but swept out to sea! Arrive in Dunedin around lunchtime and marvel at the immaculately preserved Victorian and Edwardian style buildings. You’ll instantly notice a youthful vibrancy to the city, as Dunedin is home to one of New Zealand’s largest universities, the University of Otago. Check out the impressive architecture of the railway station, pop into St. Paul’s Cathedral, grab a bite to eat at one of the street-side cafes and bars, or just wander aimlessly through the central downtown octagon. Before the sun goes down, head south to Balclutha and find a campsite to rest for the night.
Day 6: Drive to Te Anau
There’s not much to this day except to get you to Te Anau, some 200km west of Balclutha. If you have an extra day or two, consider driving along the coast south to Invercargill, New Zealand’s southernmost city steeped in Scottish heritage, impressive architecture, and the area’s most sought after food, the Bluff Oyster. But if you’re on a tight 2-week schedule, then stick to this itinerary and cut inland passing Gore, Lumsden, and Mossburn before reaching Te Anau. Stock up on groceries, get your laundry done if need be, and just enjoy the drive. Stay overnight in Te Anau, the gateway to New Zealand’s Fiordland.
Day 7: Milford Sound
As if you haven’t been mesmerized by the landscape in New Zealand already, today will just blow everything out of the water. Fiordland National Park, which lies on the southwestern part of the island, is home to glacier-cut fiords, soaring mountains, numerous lakes, and a variety of wildlife, many of which are rare or endangered. You could easily spend a week exploring this region alone.
Get on the road by 9am and head north to Milford Sound, the most accessible sound in the region. The drive will take about 3 hours (with stops) and will have you twisting and turning through the mountainous landscape. The drive itself is spectacular and serves as the appetizer for what’s to come. There are points of interests (clearly marked on the road) to check out as you make your way to Milford Sound including Eglinton Valley, the Avenue of the Disappearing Mountain, Mirror Lakes, and Lake Gunn.
The best way to take in Milford Sound is by boat. A number of operators offer a variety of cruise options departing throughout the day. We opted for the Jucy Cruize tour for budgetary reasons but still had a great time. Most tours are around 2 hours where you’ll get to cruise through Milford Sound getting a front row seat to its incredible beauty. Mountain cliffs tower over you, waterfalls extend above for meters on end, and you’ll get a glimpse at some of the wildlife that inhabit the area, including bottlenose dolphins, penguins, and fur seals lounging on the rocks. Keep in mind that the weather in Fiordland can be temperamental and rain is very common. But don’t let that stop you. Wear appropriate clothing and you’ll still have a great time.
Alright, we’re half way through our two-week road trip itinerary of New Zealand’s South Island! Click here for the second half of the trip where I take you up the west coast to get your adrenaline flowing, check out some of the country’s most amazing natural attractions, and relax in an outdoor spa before returning to Christchurch.
Interested in more road trip ideas? Check out our experience driving down the eastern coast of Australia with a relocation campervan.