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 tha