Every time Rich and I travel, I get flooded with DM’s and emails asking about all the places that we are going to. Sometimes I answer them, sometimes I just want people to discover them on their own. I find such joy in putting in hard work to find places, especially ones that are untouched and harder to find, and experiencing them without crowds of tourists. Since the rage of social media, these places are becoming harder and harder to preserve and I want them to be for the people who are actually willing to hunt, read maps, go on random dirt roads, and truly experience discovery, adventure, and the unknown.
That being said, I have decided to put together a list of a few places that Rich and I traveled to on the South Island of New Zealand, but forewarning - none of these places are secret. They are still incredible, but if you did any bit of research you are likely to have found them yourself. I want to share more of what I loved about each place so that you can go not just to take a photo, but to soak it all in.
First, let’s start with our camper van! We were preoccupied with our trip to Bali just a few weeks before and ended up renting our van really late. That meant that most companies that I knew of were completely sold out - hint book early - but we found this website that hosted a ton of different companies all in one and found our camper van there. It’s called Motorhome Republic and they are not only for NZ companies so hopefully this is helpful for other travels as well.
The biggest tip I would give when choosing your camper van is to get one that is self contained. This means that you have a funny little portable toilet that we just stashed away, but you can camp in freedom camping sites which are always cheaper and more remote. You can’t just camp anywhere in NZ, since they started having issues with campers doing their business in peoples’ yards (this happens in other countries too so don’t be too shocked), so a few years ago they put into effect freedom camping rules. There are signs on the road that say whether you can camp or not so don’t worry, you will figure it out.
We used the app campermate which was another life saver. It’s the best camper van app for all of OZ + NZ and it tells you where you can camp, shower, fill up with water, grocery stores, activities, find secret hikes, you name it, it’s on there. Don’t camper van in NZ without it.
We only did the southern part of the South Island over a span of 3 weeks and our trip was half work, half play, and if we had more time, there are some major bucket list places I want to explore in the northern part of the South Island that I am storing up for our next trip.
This was our basic itinerary - Christchurch - Lake Tekapo - Lake Pukaki - Mt. Cook - Lake Te Anau - Milford Sound - Queenstown - Wanaka - Mt. Aspiring - Fox Glacier - Franz Joseph - back via Mt. Cook to Christchurch. We didn’t get to spend much time in Mt. Cook the first time so we decided to take a full day to drive all the way back around on our way to Christchurch, but if this wasn’t the case, we would have gone on through Arthur’s Pass back to Christchurch.
Lake Tekapo + Lake Pukaki
These are epic blue lakes that are absolutely mind blowing the first time you see them. If you get there early enough in the summer, there are lupines growing all over the hills that are so beautiful. We were there mid - January and there were hardly any left, so I’d say December is probably the best month to see the blooms.
Just your casual mid mountain-range pull off that has a massive, straight uphill hike to the summit where you can see and truly absorb how incredible this place is.
Probably the most beautiful place ever and we wished we could have spent more time here. Definitely touristy, but not overrated at all. It was raining the entire time (high chance of rain all year long) and at first I was a little bummed because I couldn’t see the tops of the mountains, but it ended up being the most epic thing I had ever experienced. GO TO MILFORD SOUND IN THE RAIN. I’m serious. We drove up the next morning and it was bright and sunny and half as epic as it was in the rain.
Because the rain creates literally thousands of waterfalls cascading off the cliffs as you drive down the valley to get to Milford Sound and they are only created by rain.
Second most important thing you need to know about Milford Sound is you won’t enjoy it unless you have sand-fly repellent. These little insects are NO JOKE. It’s pretty fascinating that New Zealand doesn’t have bears or scary life threatening animals, just flight-less birds that are pretty funny running across the road, and whose biggest threat is the common house cat. But sand-flies are miserable and can ruin your experience so stop at a store before you venture anywhere really, and get some repellent.
Staying in Milford Sound
There is only 1 lodge and 1 campsite in the area, otherwise you have to drive at least an hour back up the road to some freedom camping sites (that are actually pretty rad themselves). To camp here, you have to have a self-contained vehicle and you have to book weeks, sometimes even months, in advance. Here is the website where you can make your reservation. We had no idea so we splurged and stayed in one of the chalet’s which was quite the treat.
The best part? Experiencing Milford Sound outside of popular hours. Since there is very limited accommodation in Milford Sound, the best way to beat the crowds is by visiting before the tour buses arrive or after they leave for the night. After we checked in, we drove back to the main parking lot and literally had the place to ourselves at dusk. It was incredible.
Our next stop was Queenstown + Wanaka, both really cute towns right in the heart of adventure. Queenstown is very touristy, but has a lot of access to fun adventure sports if you are into that kind of thing. Wanaka is where the local kiwi’s take their holiday and a little quieter. We were working while we were here so we didn’t get to adventure too much, but the two places I loved the most near here were Glenorchy + Mt. Aspiring.
We really didn't know what to expect driving into Mt. Aspiring, but it was one of our favorite places since most people stop at the famous Roy’s Peak hike and don’t go further. We stopped and looked at everyone lining up to take their “shot” at the summit and then just kept driving. It’s pretty funny to see ( you need binoculars). There is a map in the parking lot listing all the hut hikes you can do which all seemed really epic, but all we had time for was the shortest one - Rob Roy’s Glacier. It was AMAZING.
Pack a lunch and just sit and stare at all the waterfalls cascading off of this glacier. It’s so peaceful. You can also freedom camp in the parking lot, which was really convenient if you wanted to do one of the further hut hikes and come back to your van. They also have water in the parking lot.
West Coast - Fox Glacier + Franz Joseph
Heading up the West Coast wasn’t originally in our itinerary, but after soaking in the glacier in Mt. Aspiring I just wanted more! And I’m so glad we did. The drive from Wanaka to Fox Glacier is SO incredible. There are all these stops you can take, and a hike through the mountains at Blue Pools, and some more waterfalls. I’d definitely take the time to pull over as you drive along.
Fox Glacier and Franz Joseph are considered Glacier Country! Fox Glacier is a pretty sleepy town so I’d suggest staying in Franz Joseph for more options on food and bars, etc. Either town has access to these massive glaciers which are pretty amazing. The only thing is: you can either walk up to them, or take a helicopter tour or Heli-hike. Seemed like most of the tourism here is Heli-hiking which would be really unbelievable if it wasn’t so expensive. But if you wanted to splurge on something while in New Zealand - do a Heli-hike!
We were only able to hike the Franz Joseph Glacier because it was so rainy and we only had a small window of visibility, but that one hour of hiking was worth it. Kiwi’s call the West Coast the wet coast and after this trip, it made sense.
Franz Joseph is literally the other side of Mt. Cook, but since there is no access through the mountain, we drove all the way around (6hrs) to double back and spend a day in Mt. Cook since we missed it the first time we drove through. And we are so glad we did, don’t miss out on the iconic Mt. Cook.
We hiked the Hooker Valley Trail which is definitely popular and very touristy, but once you get to the lake you can find a spot to have lunch and feel alone. And if you are feeling brave you can jump in the glacier water with little iceberg’s floating around.
The other really cool thing that we didn’t want to miss out on was the night sky! Lake Tekapo is famous for it’s dark skies on a clear night and you can see the Milky Way really clearly. We were there when there was basically a full moon so we didn’t get the full effect, but it was still fun to stay up till 1am to see this.
And that pretty much sums up our trip! We drove back to Christchurch and stayed a few days to work and then off to Hawaii for our next job. SO incredible to get to explore this little island country and we can’t wait to come back and explore even more! We didn’t even touch the northern part of the South Island or even go to the North Island at all, so there are many more adventures here in our future.
I hope this blog post was helpful or at least just fun! I love traveling so much and I hope you can absorb how important it is to take in the experience of this place, whether you ever take a photo or not. It’s so easy to see so many picture-perfect moments in NZ and want to just do it all at once, but it’s so much better to take it slow and take it all in.
I also found some really amazing secret spots if anyone is considering New Zealand for their elopement! I only share locations once you book with me, so send me an email and we can go from there!