Motorhome: A campervan tour of New Zealand’s South Island
Words and photos by Gilbert Park
It all started as my wife, Maire, and I were on our way out of the Motorhome & Caravan Show that’s held every year at the Birmingham NEC show. We happened to see a poster advertising escorted tours of New Zealand with Worldwide Motorhoming Holidays from the Camping and Caravanning Club.
We had been thinking about going to New Zealand for the last couple of years, blowing our air miles and renting a motorhome, so it seemed like fate. Twenty minutes later, we signed up for a six-week trip around both the islands that make up New Zealand...
Arriving in Christchurch
Fourteen months later, we were in Christchurch having had most of the planning of our trip done for us. We arrived early so that we had time to acclimatise to the time difference before collecting our camper. It also gave us time to explore Christchurch itself. The terrible earthquakes it suffered are still evident but the city, like the phoenix, was rising from the ashes. The 1812 overture with fireworks in the park, the Sunday market with its musicians and the loud Indonesian music and theatrical costumes were highlights we’ll never forget.
We met the rest of our group (46 of us in total) at a hotel near the airport and spent an afternoon being briefed about driving in New Zealand and the campervans we were going to be using. The next morning, bright and early, we collected our campers. As a group, we had a total of 26 campervans and motorhomes, courtesy of Maui Rentals. Ours was a two-berth camper based on the Mercedes Sprinter.
The first stop was at a nearby supermarket to stock up before the long 225-mile drive to Mount Cook. The roads were usually long and straight, but speed limits and the single-track nature of the main roads meant distances often took longer to cover than expected.
As a keen landscape photographer, I wanted to capture the trip as much as I could, even though that would mean lots of early starts and late finishes to capture the pictures during the golden hour (that’s one hour before sunset and one hour after sunrise)!
So I was a little disappointed that the first evening group briefing started to run into my valuable photography time! But the view from the campsite meant I could manage both and capture the sunset on the peaks, although I still had an early morning start to catch the sunrise on the peaks from a car park a few miles away.
Breakfast was served in the campervan and then it was off to Dunedin, some 185 miles away.
There were a few places to stop along the way and one of them was the huge, spherical boulders at Moeraki, believed to be about four million years old. If you like steam power, as I do, then Steampunk HQ at nearby Oamaru is the place to visit with its quirky museum.
The next day we were free to explore Dunedin. In the morning we went off to see the giant albatrosses, but the sea was a touch rough.
In the afternoon, we took a trip on the Taieri Gorge Railway to visit some old ore mines. The commentary was one of the most amusing ones I have ever heard and the train crossing the gorges on narrow bridges was a fantastic experience.
Another early start saw us on our way to Te Anau, 185 miles away. We couldn’t resist going on the Presidential Highway from Clinton to Gore. Shortly after that, we came to an aircraft museum in Mandeville where not only did you get to see restored planes (many of which were still flying) but you could also visit the workshops to see the craftsmen making new cowlings, engine bits and even ironing on new coverings for some of the very early planes.
We eventually arrived at our pre-arranged campsite, which was in a stunning location. It was right on the edge of a lake, and I was able to take some of my favourite photos from the whole trip, both in the evening and at sunrise. It was just as well the day did start off well because the weather went downhill later on, with grey skies and poor light.
Queenstown to Fox Glacier
From here, a relatively short driving day of around 110 miles was planned to get us to the adventure sports capital of Queenstown for two days. Trips on the lake were worth taking for the less adventurous, who didn’t want to try a submarine dive, white water rafting or any of the other extreme sports on offer! Later on, dinner with our group at Bob’s Peak had spectacular views but, once again, it was grey and raining.
A short trip of around 75 miles took us to Wanaka. We decided not to stay at the prearranged campsite here but to move onto Cameron Flats – an inexpensive Department of Conservation campsite. The sun shone for the first part of the trip and Lake Wanaka and Hawea provided stunning views, but the drizzle settled in again that evening. The next morning wasn’t much better so it was off to Fox Glacier (165 miles from Wanaka), where our prearranged helicopter trip was cancelled due to the weather – such a shame!
The weather improved again in the evening and so we set off to exploit the advantages of a campervan to the fullest. We had found a great viewpoint of the glacier and got there early so as not to miss the sunset. While I was outside setting up my camera, Maire cooked up one of the best meals we had on the whole trip – a risotto! Then the clouds parted and there were shafts of sunlight just where I wanted them; a perfect end to a perfect evening.
Greymouth to Picton
The following day it was off to Greymouth, some 120 miles away. Again, it was drizzling but, as so often happens in these conditions, there was a great sunset. Then it was off to Hammer Springs, 185 miles away. On the way, we stopped at Reefton, famous as being the first place to have electricity in the southern hemisphere and, as we found out, a coffin shop.
Then it was on to Kaikoura (80 miles away) to see whales in the afternoon. Unfortunately, the weather remained drizzly – not that it seemed to bother Tutu the whale! Kaikoura had also suffered a devastating earthquake in 2016 when it was completely isolated by road and rail for some time. Evidence of this was still visible but recovery was fast and ongoing. It was clear there was a huge amount of community spirit involved in resuscitating the tourist trade – where else would you see knitted park benches?
The next afternoon we decided to leave the group and travel north to avoid the stress of travelling through the roadworks to the port of Picton, where we were to catch the ferry the next day to the North Island.
We weren’t staying on a pre-arranged site that night and instead we found probably the best site of the trip in Momorangi Bay. This was a serviced site run by the Department of Conservation, which was very tranquil with amazing scenery. Even though it was grey again, this didn’t stop us breaking out the barbecue and enjoying a relaxing last evening in the South Island.
The next day we headed to the port and left Picton, sailing through Queen Charlotte Sound on our way to the North Island, where our story continues…
This feature was published in the June 2019 edition of Campervan magazine, which has lots of travel inspiration each and every month. Click here to buy a digital back issue of the magazine.