New Zealand is one of the most stunningly beautiful countries I’ve visited, with its craggy mountains and glaciers in the South Island and boiling geysers and rolling hills of the North Island.
Our trip to New Zealand in early summer was my first, but Peter had been a couple of times before. We decided to see as much as possible by hiring a camper van for the duration of our trip, another first for me (see below for an image of me at the wheel). The camper van itself was a disappointment, as it was a lot older and shabbier than we’d expected, but even though it had its problems, a camper van was a great way to see New Zealand.
We started our journey in Christchurch on the South Island, meandering as far South as Te Anau before turning back north. Overall, we spent two weeks in the South Island before catching the ferry through the stunning Queen Charlotte Sound from Picton to Christchurch. On the North Island, we visited the Art Deco haven of Napier before heading up to Rotorua and finally ending our journey in Auckland.
The landscape was awash with wildflowers, which made the stunning scenery even more breathtaking.
Part 1 – South Island
After picking up our camper van in Christchurch, we headed south-east towards Akaroa. As we meandered around the coastline, the scenery hinted at the awe-inspiring views that awaited us. “This is just the appetiser,” Peter remarked as I gulped.
Akaroa is a pretty town just north of Christchurch with a definite French influence. The image below is of the Akaroa Wharf, which was built in 1887. Sadly, I’ve just learned that it’s going to be replaced within the next few years.
Further south, on Lake Wanaka, we got to see what must be one of the most photographed trees in New Zealand. Google “Wanaka Tree” or #wanakatree on Instagram to see how many images come up.
Cadrona is a small hamlet in the valley between Queenstown and Wanaka and close to the Cadrona Alpine Resort, a popular winter sports region. The Cadrona Hotel is one of the oldest hotels in New Zealand and is a reminder of the area’s gold rush past.
Just past the hotel, I noticed a fence covered with strips of fabric. On a closer look, it turned out these were bras tied to the fence. There must have been about a thousand bras flapping in the breeze! Back at home (otherwise known as crappy van) I did some research and discovered this bizarre exhibit began back in the late 1990s.
Over the years, there have been several unsuccessful attempts to have the bras permanently removed, but at least now they’re doing some good. As well as providing a quirky tourist attraction, they’re helping raise money for breast cancer research.
A great way to experience Milford Sound in the Fiordlands of the South Island is by boat. The tall dark cliffs, carved out by glaciers during the Ice Age, are awe-inspiring from the deck of a boat. I haven’t been to Norway, but I imagine it would be a little like Milford Sound. To add to the excitement, the captain of our boat decided we weren’t close enough to the forbidding cliffs and nudged the bow into the spray of a cascading waterfall. “Legend dictates if you get wet under this waterfall, you’ll never grow old,” he promised.
Part 2 – North Island
We caught the ferry from the South Island to the North Island from Picton. The ship transported us to Wellington via the beautiful Queen Charlotte Sound. After we’d drawn breath, and changed our van (third and reverse gears had given up on us by this stage) we headed east to Napier. Devastated in 1931 by a major earthquake, the town was rapidly rebuilt and now has what’s arguably the world’s most complete collection of Art Deco architecture.
Heading north west, we skirted Lake Taupo, the largest lake in New Zealand, towards Rotorua. You can tell you’re getting close to Rotorua by the clouds of steam billowing from the ground by the side of the road and the faint smell of sulphur that clings to the air. Peter had been raving about the Rotorua museum so it was disappointing to discover it was closed indefinitely having failed earthquake safety standard assessments. Instead, we visited the Te Puia Maori Village, which provided a great insight into the Maori culture and brought us close up to the Pohutu geyser and boiling mud pools. Our Maori guide kept referring to us as “my family” highlighting the importance of the family in their culture.
Of course, as we were in the North Island we had to visit Hobbiton, close to Rotorua and see the little Hobbit houses. Located on staggeringly beautiful farmland, the set was dismantled when filming for the Lord of the Rings trilogy ended and had to be rebuilt for The Hobbit. The owner of the farmland agreed to the use of his land on condition that a permanent site be constructed. Now the owner runs Hobbiton in partnership with Peter Jackson, who directed The Lord of the Rings trilogy and The Hobbit.
Interesting facts about New Zealand
- Evidence suggests that New Zealand was uninhabited until about 1250–1300.
- Other than bats, New Zealand has no native mammals or snakes. As a result, some birds, including the Kiwi, lost their ability to fly as they had no predators on the ground. Unfortunately, cats, dogs and other small animals introduced by settlers to New Zealand have created a decline in the number of Kiwis.
- New Zealand has a few earthquakes every week but most are either deep inside the earth or of a low magnitude and don’t cause any damage. To find out the recent earthquake activity in New Zealand, check this link
- The Maori name for New Zealand is Aotearoa, meaning land of the long white cloud
- The beautiful lupins of New Zealand are not native to the country. They are Russell Lupins, a hybrid of Lupinus polyphyllus originally from North America, and introduced to New Zealand during the first half of the twentieth century. I read somewhere a farmer’s wife scattered them in the 1940s to “make the countryside prettier”. Whether that’s true or just an urban legend remains to be seen but now they’re considered an invasive weed.
Would I recommend travelling through New Zealand in a camper van? If the thought of driving on the left, steep climbs, hairpin bends and parking large vehicles doesn’t bother you, then yes, I’d definitely recommend it. The roads are good and, other than in Auckland, we didn’t meet any heavy traffic. Acquaint yourself with the traffic rules before you set off. There are plenty of traffic police waiting to pull you over! We were stopped on our first day by a friendly police officer because we accidentally went over the road’s centre line going round a bend.
Here’s a picture of me at the wheel of the camper van beast and a photo of it parked by beautiful Lake Hawea.
If you’re not daunted by the driving, then a camper van is a great way to see the country. But, word of warning, check the age of the campervan before you commit to the booking. As mentioned earlier, we didn’t do that and ended up with one that must have been close to twenty years old!
The great advantage about travelling in a campervan is that if it’s raining, you can just pull up at a stunning location, make yourself a cup of tea or coffee and relax with a book. Bliss! (Full disclosure: we weren’t travelling with children!) This is one of our little “cup of tea” stops overlooking the valley towards Queenstown. We sat and watched the planes weave through the valley to the airport below.
New Zealand has plenty of excellent camping sites with powered spots and good facilities (bathrooms, kitchens, laundries etc). Many have playground areas for children. I’d recommend downloading the Wikicamps New Zealand app.
By the time we left New Zealand, we’d clocked up over two thousand kilometres, taken several thousand photos and gathered some amazing memories and yet there is still so much more to see.
- New Zealand’s Official Travel Website
- Information about Driving in New Zealand
- New Zealand Holiday Parks and Campsite Information
- New Zealand Weather Information
- Tourism New Zealand
- Driving distance calculator