New Zealand Road Trip
In January three of us travelled to the other side of the world in search of New Zealand adventure. We spent over 30 hours on three planes from London Gatwick and landed in Auckland in the morning of the 29th December 2016. I wanted to write out the route we did to help anyone planning their own road trip of a lifetime!
In my research I had found a lot of info about just the North or South island, long-term travelling, and backpacker’s tips, but few that covered both islands, by road, and in the short but action-packed three-week timeframe we had.
It wasn’t always easy to keep our pace and we didn’t see everything we wanted to… But we’re using that as our excuse to go back again as soon as we can!
I’ll go over the exact route we took, our must-see highlights and include lessons we learnt from the pair of stunning green islands. It would take days of reading to cover everything in one post, so make sure you check my other posts on New Zealand and check back as I update the site with more travelling tales.
TOP TRAVEL TIPS (more of these later):
Wear sunscreen – Coming from the UK in December my skin was basically transparent when we arrived and that sun is STRONG. You can get huge bottles of factor 50 from supermarkets, I recommend this is one of the first things you do. Re-apply it twice a day, carry smaller bottles with you for top ups and take advantage of the abundantly available free stuff you see in lots of places (well done NZ).
Carry quite a bit of cash – Providing you can do so safely. It helps you budget your adventure without any money-worries and there aren’t so many cash machines around NZ and not everywhere takes card.
Don’t be afraid of the freedom camping – we did this for most of our journey, which really helped us save for more adventure. Everywhere we stopped was clean, quiet and safe. It’s not like camping in the UK at all. The showers and hot and more often than not folks can be trusted to leave your things out in the bathroom/kitchen if you’re staying somewhere for a few days. I’ll put a note on all the places below that were freedom camps.
29th Dec - Landed in Auckland airport and picked up our motor home from SHAREaCAMPER (kinda like Airbnb for campervans). The guy we rented ours from was kind enough to meet us at the airport and spend an hour showing us how to make the most of our new home, who we named ‘Maz’. Bedding, towels, pots and pans etc. was included. If anyone would like a separate post on what van companies are best and why we went for the size we did, just leave a comment below.
TOP TIP: Bear in mind December/January is the peak of NZ summer so choices were scarce, you need to book your van well in advance to get the best option for you, and believe me, when you live in it for best part of a month it’s worth an investment.
We had arranged to start our adventure at NZ music festival Rhythm and Vines, which is on the East coast in Gisbourne so our first day was spent picking our bikes up, getting supplies from the supermarket, settling into the van and driving it about 500km towards beautiful vineyard country and home of the Whale Rider on the east coast.
For us, this had to be the way we started out and to maximise our route we chose to do what is essentially a figure of eight covering both islands, starting clockwise Auckland - Gisbourne. You can read about the festival, forever regarded as our most amazing New Years party (so far…) in my post here.
1st Jan – We’d heard about Rere Falls, a nearby waterfall (at this early stage we had yet to discover that you can’t do anything in NZ without stumbling into a waterfall) so we made it our next stop. A beautiful, relatively short falls that was full of people having picnics and swimming. Although cold and quite literally breathtaking under the thunderous water, we all got in the falls… Quite the way to spend New Years Day. We dried off, full of excitement at what else we could see that could be any more amazing, and it was only our first proper day of exploring.
We spent the next night just down the coast in Hawke Bay, in a little campsite in Wairoa. It was busy but spacious and full of festive Christmas lights… Very strange for us in such warm summer weather.
2nd Jan – We travelled a little more down the east coast to Napier, then turned back inland towards Lake Taupo. We were getting closer to Rotorua, famous hotspot for volcanic activity. With this in mind we opted to visit the Orekei Korako Cave and Thermal Park, getting a little boat over to the volcanic park. You can only tread on the wooden path laid out as your walk around the geysers and dried lava, seeing boiling pools of water and caves along the way, oh and prepare yourself - the sulpher smells strong! After the park we visited the impressive Huka falls which flows into Lake Taupo itself. We arrived at a freedom camping spot on the edge of Lake Taupo that evening and set up camp.
3rd Jan – We visited the Taupo Museum which was our first real insight into the vast history of NZ and taste of the Maori culture, it’s an unassuming museum but I would recommend it. We later pushed on to the south of Lake Taupo and a second freedom camp spot.
4th Jan - This was the first of the longer bike rides the boys did. I left them at the top of the Tongariro National Park and while they explored on two wheels, I took Maz down Desert Road. This spawls around the east edge of the National Park and is where they filmed a lot of the Mordor scenes from Lord of the Rings.
We had agreed to meet in a ‘town’ back on the other side of the Park so after my hobbit adventure I began making my way there. I was confident at first, slowly descending into panic as the road got smaller, thinner, less like road and more like a pile of rocks until Maz and I rounded a corner and were promptly swallowed up entirely by a flock of maybe 200 sheep! I was promptly recruited by the farmer who was herding them to block off a potential escape route. It’s safe to say that everyone we met in NZ was lovely and he assured me that if I carried on not even another mile I’d reach my destination fully intact.
Sure enough, I arrived to a wooden swing board that read ‘POPULATION: 8’ much to my amusement. This leads to a…
TOP TIP: Not all the places on your map will be actual towns, or even villages when you reach them so stock up on supplies and fuel whenever you get the chance
5th Jan – We made it to Whakapapa village and camped at the bottom of the Tongariro Mountain Range for two nights while we prepared and completed the nine hour Tongariro Alpine Crossing. This is a must-do! If you’re a LOTR fan you have to climb Mt Doom and if you’re not this is the most stunning NZ one day hike. You will see craters, emerald lakes, phenomenal views over Taupo and the most stunning volcanic scenery. It’s not easy but it’s not impossible and if the weather is on your side you don’t need that much gear. There’s a lot of info in the village of Tongariro on what you do need and what route to take, plus you can arrange to have buses drop you off and pick you up for around $30 which is a huge advantage – you don’t want to be messing around when you’ve done such a long day, let the rangers do it for you, it’s worth the investment.
6th Jan – We had stayed in one place for two nights for the first time on our journey and were itching to get on the road again so after soaking our blisters and bruises in the hot tub we packed up and headed down the west coast to Bulls. We ate fish and chips on the way and had our first taste of revered NZ vegetable kumara. It's like a sweet potato, but not quite as sweet, it made great chips anyway!
7th Jan – We got up early and headed to Wellington where we had our first taste of a city since Auckland, it was quite a shock after spending a week in the wilderness, we emerged out of the van wide-eyed at the city, it's strange how quickly we adapt. The Te Papa Museum in Wellington is free and well worth a visit, there’s a whole floor on Maori culture, the influence of Great Britain and endless rooms about the fault lines, earthquakes and volcanoes that make the islands such outstanding landscapes. We wandered the city, had some great fresh vegan food (which is abundant in Wellington) and were drawn down thriving Cuba Street with independent shops, cafes and a food market. We made the climb up to Wellington Botanic Garden, also well worth a visit if you're into plants.
Our ferry crossing from Wellington was in the evening and we had a lovely calm crossing, taking just over 3 hours.
TOP TIP: Don’t let anyone put you off the ferry, it wasn’t rough and no one got sick. The tickets for a large motorhome and three people were expensive but the ease was worth the investment.
There is more below on the North island if you want to skip down and follow our trip back up!
This is where things get really interesting... We only had 5 days for the whole of the South island. We knew we were pushing it, but honestly the will for adventure was too strong! We accepted that there would be a couple of days that were non-stop driving and we would have to make some sacrifices along the way.
This first night was the only night we didn’t plan very well and ended up sleeping in the van in a car park outside the info centre in Blenheim… Significantly less glamorous than the lakesides, mountainsides or riversides we’d gotten so accustomed to.
TOP TIP: Use apps to help you locate petrol stations, free campsites, wifi, dump stations. If you download them before your trip on wifi then you can use them offline while you’re over there and GPS will still show you where you are on the map. I highly recommend Rankers Camping NZ, they even give little discounts on paid campsites.
8th Jan – We were initially aiming for Kaikoura, a whale hotspot, but never made it. We drove a good 50km down a road that was closed further down due to earthquake damage, but no road signs told us this – fortunately some lovely polish campers did and we turned around.
TOP TIP: Road signs aren’t overly abundant or helpful… Ask people along the way, tell them where you’re going and they will be happy to tell you a bit more about the kind of terrain and roads.
Disheartened but not defeated we made a U turn back to Blenheim! In light of this we made the overall decision that due to the main road being closed along the east coast, we’d change tact and travel down the west coast instead. A big move, especially as we were so short of time already. We drove over and down to Charleston, a beautiful beach town where we camped that night.
9th Jan – Early starts became the norm as we needed to cover so much ground so we got up and headed to nearby Carters Beach, the owner of the campsite in Charleston had recommended it. The beach hosts a seal colony and we were lucky enough to see their pups who were playing and jumping around in the rocks, it was a beautiful sight and a must do! The same beach is also home to blue penguins, who can be seen at dusk, just be careful not to disturb them.
We got back to Maz and travelled all the way down the edge of the south island, past Pancake Rocks, through Franz Josef and Fox glaciers, finally camping in a freedom camp on Jackson Bay.
10th Jan – Up early again today to make the outstandingly beautiful drive into Queenstown. We travelled around the top of Mt. Aspiring, between Lake Wanaka and Lake Hawea, where we stopped off for some casual glacier lake swimming, onto the relatively new Crown Range road. There are alarmingly frequent warning signs this beautiful road that it’s dangerous and not for large vehicles…
TOP TIP: We cautiously persisted and after miles of flat road it suddenly was an almost vertical climb! Luckily NZ is full of passing lanes and built for campers so we were able to take it slow with lots of stops for Maz to rest. At the top we met a guy in an old Toyota who's engine water was visibly boiling from the climb, so be prepared.
Thankfully she made it and the payoff was incredible. From the top you can see Queenstown sprawl out below like a painting. The planes fly right past you to land at Queenstown airport, you can see the Valley of the Kings from LOTR, Lake Wakatipu and the spectacular surrounding mountain ranges.
We made our slow descent and camped at Creeksyde Queenstown Holiday Park, which claims to be the worlds first EarthCheck environmentally friendly campsite. It was lovely, I’d recommend it if you want somewhere central but pretty. We set up camp and set about exploring on foot, soon switching to another, more unusual mode of transport… A jet boat.
Queenstown is known as the NZ capital of adventure sports and we couldn’t wait to get involved. As soon as we made it through town to the lake we hopped on a jet boat to take us down the Shotover River. Once started these boats can race in just 3 inches of water so we ploughed up and down the banks and shallows, it was certainly a more dramatic way to see the sights, well worth the $60 we paid.
Back on land we opted for a BBQ back at camp and planned the next few days. We decided to stay in Queenstown longer as we fell in love with the spirit of the place and wanted to see more.
11th Jan - Things didn’t go exactly to plan though… We’d booked to fly over Milford Sound in an effort to save travel time, sadly the 11th Jan was very windy and the pilots deemed it unsafe to be in the air. In a desperate attempt to still get there we then booked to go by coach, but the strong winds and high temperatures had sadly spread bushfires along the road connecting us. This was a great loss, we'd been desperate to get there, but staying in Queenstown was still worth it and Milford Sound is top of our list for our next visit to NZ!
Instead we hung out on the beach, had brunch in the marina, went up in the cable car, shopped and ate ice cream, mostly. In the afternoon we walked out of town to a market where I sampled the best vegan cheese I’ve ever had. It was by the lovely Rawmazing Queenstown and I wish there was a safe way to ship it over to the UK! We walked back along the coast and through the huge park back into Queenstown, stopping to spend some mindful minutes at the Captain Scott Memorial in Queenstown Gardens which really put our ease of movement around the world into perspective.
12th Jan – On leaving Queenstown we had to hightail it back up the South island to make it back in time, and only stopped to take in the bluest of blue water you will ever see at Lake Pukaki. The lake is the foreground to the stunning Mount Cook, definitely worth a stop on your trip. Ideally we’d liked to have explored the National Park but we had a ferry to catch!
We carried on up the east coast to Christchurch. The sadness of the earthquake destruction is still tangible here, although there is a thriving community doing amazing work rebuilding the city. Definitely go and see the 185 empty chairs memorial. Each white chair is distinctive, as was each person who lost their life, it’s a deeply moving exhibit where you’re welcomed to go and sit in the chairs, it’s hard not to connect with the families and friends who lost loved ones.
13th Jan- We camped outside of Christchurch in Cust, in a beautiful woodland freedom camp. Arising very early for the last leg up to Picton, going overland by rejoining the same road we’d first ventured down. The ferry ride back was at sunset and was one of the most beautiful journeys I’ve ever made.
TOP TIP: You’re allowed up on deck but take lots of layers if you want to do this, it gets chilly.
The route the ferry takes winds around tiny little islands teaming with wildlife. Dolphins, penguins, albatross and some of the most amazing NZ animals can be spotted as you gently curve around the bottom of the world.
I can be strange about food when travelling, so by the time the 3 hour ferry journey was done I was ravenous! We made a beeline for Cuba Street in Wellington and this time experienced it at it’s peak, just after midnight. There were amazing buskers, lively nightlife, clubs, cocktail bars, underground basement bars and some late night bistros all packed with people enjoying the easy way of life down under. We took everything in as we strolled through before stumbling upon Ekim’s Burgers at the very top of the road. It’s an old campervan that’s been painted, with some upturned barrels for tables and chairs, all spray painted with graffiti but it was genuinely the best meal I had in New Zealand! I had the tofu burger with guac and chilli chips… YUM. With full bellies, we freedom camped again in Paraparamu.
14th Jan – Remember, we’d travelled anti clockwise down the North Island so we opted to head back up the west coast in order to see more stuff! The first stop was Mount Taranaki. The Maori tale is that Mount Taranaki and Mount Tongariro used to reside in the same cluster of mountains (the same ones we climbed over on the Alpine Crossing trek), but they both fell in love with the same mountain. They fought over her and fell out, so Taranaki took off right to the edge of the land until he could go no further; and they say that’s why Taranaki is the only mountain on the west coast. I think the story is beautiful, but the mountain itself is stunning. We were lucky enough to arrive on a clear day and camp at a campsite just underneath that night.
15th Jan – This was the day the boys did the famous Timber Trail cycle route. One of New Zealand’s greatest industries is timber and this route follows the old trail the loggers would take. It’s difficult, you need mountain bikes, they came back covered in scratches from the bush but they loved it. I spent my time in a spot called Ongarue just reading and walking along the stream there. It was very relaxing in contrast.
16th Jan – I had begged for the whole trip that I wanted to see a kiwi, so we just had to go to the Otorohanga Kiwi House and Bird Park. This place is a sanctuary that works with breeding programmes to save the little endangered New Zealand treasure, so we were happy to pay the entry fee here and pick up some souvenirs. It was actually very educational and we met 4 different kinds of kiwi, they are beautiful, feisty, quirky birds, nowhere near as small as I imagined! As they’re nocturnal you obviously can’t take photos, but I did take one of the night vision cam screen so you can see them in their den.
Our next stop was probably the highlight of the whole trip for me. We made our way to the Waitomo Glowworm Caves and of course, settling for a quiet boat tour wasn’t enough… We opted to do black water rafting. In a cave. Underground. In the dark. Under the glowworms.
It. Was. Amazing!
TOP TIP: Book an evening slot if you can. We were the last group of the day, there were only 5 of us which is a small group so we got to do things bigger groups don’t get to do.
We did the tour with The Legendary Black Water Rafting Company who expertly lead us as we crawled, swam and dived backwards off of waterfalls. The three hour adventure of a lifetime was topped off by floating downstream in the pitch black, whilst one of our guides sang a Maori send-off song, all under the glimmer of glowworms. It was such a beautiful moment and an experience I will never forget.
As if that wasn’t enough for one day, that night we did a nearby glowworm walk too. We walked over bridges, through caves, underground and out in the open air with just the little blue clusters for company. This is completely free and a great embodiment of New Zealand as a whole. It’s truly magical. There was a point on the walk where you stand between two rock faces, each covered with glittering glowworms, the sky above you littered with the brightest stars. You can’t tell where the sky ends and rocks begin; it feels like another world entirely.
17th Jan – After our magical night we decided to go to Hamilton Gardens the next day, it’s free entry and well worth a visit. It was hot and exposed though, so take a sunhat. The gardens are enormous, ignore the Trip advisor reviews and allow several hours to wander about amongst nature.
18/19th Jan - We then travelled through Auckland and decided we’d get as far north as we could without compromising our flight home. We got as far as Whangaparoa, alongside the Kaipara Harbour and Red Beach and camped here for two nights, to give ourselves chance to clean the van and pack up ready for our next adventure in Melbourne. We swam with fish in the sea, ate in little cafés, munched on fresh fruit from farms at the roadside and generally relaxed in the sun before the next adventure.
It's safe to say that this was the trip of a lifetime. We had worked hard and saved hard to make it the best it could be and it's a time I will treasure forever. There is still so much more to see in New Zealand and we're already making plans to go back. Don't hesitate if it's something you're thinking of doing, the magic of the islands will stay with you always.
If you are planning your own trip to New Zealand, I'd love to know! Comment below or tweet me with any questions or any more posts you'd like to see about about our adventure. For more photo's and to find out where we're going next follow me on Instagram.