We embarked on a 3 week trip across the South Island New Zealand and it honestly changed our life. The South island of New Zealand is one of the most picturesque landscapes to explore on the entire globe, we will take you through our exact itinerary, places to visit, and areas to stop overnight in a campervan.
New Zealand is like a love affair that you never want to end. Every time we visit a little piece of our soul is left with this beautiful Country. The diversity across such a small island is incredible, and we are so excited to share our road trip experience with you!
What this blog will cover:
A suggested 3 week itinerary for visiting the South Island of New Zealand
Our total budget breakdown for 3 weeks
Driving distances between each stop
Points of interest in the South Island
Campground overnight suggestions
So, let’s start at the beginning.
This itinerary is based on flying in and out of Christchurch International airport. For the South Island, Christchurch is likely to be the most convenient airport and is usually the cheapest when flying internationally. There is another airport in Queenstown which is popular if flying domestically or coming from Australia.
Aside from flights, Christchurch is likely to be the most convenient for picking up your motorhome, there are many RV/motorhome/campervan bases here very close to the airport.
Note: Total driving time is based on driving straight there.. we would recommend allowing more time for photo and food stops!
Map Overview of self-drive route we took:
Christchurch to Lake Pukaki (stop in Tekapo) 286km / 177 miles
Time without stops: 3.5 hours
First off, the most exciting part is picking up your motorhome! Check with your hire company if a complimentary pick up is included from your hotel or the airport. The first stop on your journey is likely to be a food shop to stock up for the road. We hired our campervan from Wilderness NZ which are located right near the airport. There are many ‘Countdowns’ (similar to Australian Woolies) and ‘Pack n save’ food shopping outlets close by.
Head south 3 hours from Christchurch to Tekapo, home to the bluest lakes you will see across New Zealand! If you are visiting between Nov – Jan you may be lucky enough to see the lupins in bloom. These are the beautiful purple flowers that are famous around this region. There are quite a few huge lupin fields around this way, and on the drive between Lake Tekapo and Lake Pukaki. Be sure to have your camera ready!
Lake Pukaki is located 30 minutes from Tekapo, spend the evening here and wake up to stunning lake views.
Points of interest
- Lake Tekapo
- Church of Good Shepherd in Tekapo
- Lake Pukaki
- Best area to see the Lupin fields
Overnight spot: We pulled in just next to Lake Pukaki for the night. Total cost: FREE
Lake Pukaki to Mount Cook 50km / 30 miles
Time without stops: 45 mins
Mount Cook national park is a short drive from Lake Pukaki. This is one of our favourite stops with many hiking options and incredible snowy scenery, even in the Summer snow caps will still grace the mountains. The windy road up from Lake Pukaki is stunning, with the blue lake on the right and mountains straight ahead.
Overnight stop: There is a campsite in the Mount Cook area called White Horse hill campground. It is run by the Department of Conservation and is a low-cost campground ($13 per person per night), there are no showers or dumpsites but has clean toilets you can use. This campsite is convenient because many of the walks start at this campsite including the following:
Hooker Valley track - a popular 5km track that is an easy walk, very little elevation with absolutely stunning views the entire way, it took us around 4 hours total but we stopped a lot to take photos and also have some food.
Sealy Tarns track - this is a 5.8km round trip however it is a very steep incline to the top with over 500 metres of elevation, the route consists of stairs all the way up to the top across Aoraki Mount Cook National park.
Kea Point track - this track is one of the easiest to do in Mount Cook village taking around 20-30 mins to reach the end, there is a platform at the end to enjoy Mueller lake and Mount Sefton.
Take a break from reading to watch our New Zealand highlight here travelling in a 1970's old school kombi van!
Mount Cook to Omarama 70km / 43 miles
Time without stops: 45 mins
From Mount Cook, Omarama is just under an hour South. On the drive down, there are some interesting stops and a very scenic lake if wanting to stop for lunch.
In Omarama be sure to stop in at Omarama hot pools for the best hot tub experience! For $49 per person (based on 2), you can watch the sunset over the hills and soak under the stars. It was one of our favourite romantic experiences on our trip. For more information on this check out our full guide here.
Overnight stop: Ahuriri bridge campground Cost: FREE. This site is a good size with lots of space, it also had drop toilets and beautiful views of the beginnings of Lindis pass – famous for the hills that are covered in Tussock grass.
Omarama to Glenorchy (stop in Arrowtown) 223km / 138 miles
Time without stops: 3 hours
Along state highway 8 through to Glenorchy you will drive through Lindis Pass, an area surrounded by mountains and hills covered in tussock grass. It is one of the most unique landscapes we have experienced, with a few well signed scenic stops here, be sure to check out at least one! Take your time with this drive, it is so beautiful that there will likely be many stops a long the way, enjoy the journey and pick a scenic spot for lunch.
We recommend a stop in Arrowtown for lunch, Arrowtown is a historic gold mining town and has many gorgeous places to eat.
There are a few freedom camping spots alongside the Lake Wakatipu (sign posted all the way) but they get real busy! If you want to secure a spot we would recommend to reach there early evening and check out Glenorchy in the morning.
Hike recommendations along Glenorchy road:
Moke Lake: has been used as a filming location, can drive there or do the walking loop – allow for 2.5 hours return
Bob’s Cove Track: a short hike at 20 mins each way to reach a stunning cove on Lake Wakatipu
Overnight stop: We stayed in the car park of Glenorchy hotel which was FREE as long as you bought a drink.
Glenorchy to Queenstown 46km / 28 miles
Time without stops: 45 mins
Glenorchy is possibly one of our favourite stops in New Zealand, 45 mins outside of Queenstown, travellers often miss this charming little town. The drive alone is worth the detour, the road runs alongside Lake Wakatipu the entire way. There are many stops to soak up the views of the crisp blue lake and snow-capped mountains in the distance, plus a number of hikes if you have a little more time. (See details above for Bob Cove track and Moke Lake)
Worthy mentions in Glenorchy:
- The little red Glenorchy boat shed and boat jetty has become an attraction, a great way to spend a morning with some great cafes and boutique shops to explore.
- Glenorchy café for homemade pastries and good coffee
- Paradise road for stunning scenery
Queenstown is for the adrenaline junky, the foodie, the hiker, the active! We spent the whole day here soaking up what we could:
Eat at Fergburger - the most famous burger in town. It was a pretty good burger, top tip is to order in advance and pick up rather than standing in the (very long) queue that forms outside from opening time.
Climb Queenstown hill for really beautiful views
Watch the sunset over Lake Wakatipu with a Patagonia ice cream
Enjoy a cocktail at the Sundeck rooftop bar
We had already done a skydive in Wanaka last year, so we decided not to do it this year, but there is a skydive centre in Queenstown, as well as the famous AJ Hackett bungy jump if looking for something to kick start the adrenaline!
Overnight stay: Queenstown Lakeview Holiday Park, Cost: $50 per powered site. This included hot showers, nice facilities, toilets and a powered site, right in the heart of Queenstown so everything is walkable.
Queenstown to Te Anau 170km / 105 miles
Time without stops: 2 hours
Te Anau is the gateway to Milford Sound, however we would recommend a stop in this small town. Often missed out on the journey through the Milford, Te Anau is a great overnight stop with some awesome campgrounds located near to the small town centre.
The start of two great NZ \(Multiple day walks) the Kepler Track and the Milford track
Take a walk along Lake Te Anau at sunset, the lake is huge and is a really nice walk from the small town centre back to the campground
Driving the Milford Sound road (between Te Anau and Milford) is absolutely stunning, an incredibly scenic drive
Overnight stay: Te Anau Lakeview Kiwi Holiday Park and ask for a site with lakes views, Cost: $22 per person (powered site). This was amazing to wake up to, we took our coffees down to the water to watch the sunrise, not a bad start to the morning!
Te Anau to Milford Sound 118km / 73 miles
Time without stops: 1 hour 45 mins
The road through to Milford Sound is one of the most scenic drives. As you drive deeper into
the Fiordland national park, the views are beyond spectacular.
Eglinton Valley - plenty of places to pull over for a photo
Mirror lakes - a short 5 min walk from the car for views over Mount Earl, and LOTS of ducklings!
Lake Marian - Our favourite hike in the whole of New Zealand! This hike was pretty tough and would need some level of fitness to complete, it took us a couple of hours (up hill) to reach Lake Marian and spent around half a day in total relaxing at the top and walking back down.
Homer Tunnel - Homer tunnel is the start of beautiful waterfalls falling from the towering peaks, there's a spot on the right side of the road to soak up the views (signposted)
Overnight spot: Cascade Creek - DOC campground Cost: $15 per night
This is just off of Milford road and there is a ton of space to park - 120 unpowered sites. It is a low cost campground and the ranger will come round to collect the money daily or pay at the registration kiosk. There is a walk to Lake Gunn that is accessible through the forest next to the car park.
Milford Sound to Wanaka 342km / 21 miles
Time without stops: 4 hours 30 mins
A trip to Milford isn't complete without a cruise on the water. We had a 2 hour cruise with Go Orange that started at 9am and lasted 2 hours. There is parking about a 5 minute walk from the boat terminal. The cruise will take you round the beautiful Milford Sound, we saw sea lions and a ton of waterfalls!
Milford sound is one of the wettest place in the world! Don't despair, Milford Sound is actually better when it's raining... cloudy skies and thousands of cascading waterfalls creates an ethereal world, pure magic.
Overnight stay (2 nights, days 13-15): Milford Lodge, it is the ONLY campground in the heart of Milford so book early (at least a week in advance if possible) Cost: $30 PP per night. It has cooking facilities, shower and toilets and a place to eat home cooked food, it also has an onsite cafe and restaurant if you're feeling lazy and the grounds are beautiful.
Overnight stay (1 night, day 15): On the way back to Wanaka, stop overnight at Kingston campground at Lake Wakatipu. Cost: FREE
Wanaka to Franz Josef (via The Neck) 286km / 177 miles
Time without stops: 3 hours 45 mins
Wanaka is another hub for outdoor adventure, for adventure seekers there are activities including skydiving, canyoning and hiking. There are many wineries close by, between Queenstown and Wanaka with beautiful and delicious wine, we took a detour to taste some wine at Bald Hill.
We took a helicopter ride with Wanaka helicopters, the views over Mount Aspiring National Park were absolutely jaw dropping. We landed on age-old glaciers, ate directly from the snow and got to enjoy Wanaka from above.
Roys Peak 6-8 hours return - this is probably the photo you have seen overlooking Mount Aspiring and Lake Wanaka, this is a fairly tough work and would need a good level of fitness to complete. The gradient is steep, you will be walking up hill for around 3 hours, the way back is a lot easier at is is all downhill.
Isthmus Peak 6 hours return - this tracks overlooks Lake Wanaka and Lake Hawea, it is a steep and rocky climb that winds up to a skyline ridge, a good level of fitness would be required for this hike.
Rob Roy Glacier 3-4 hours return - this is an easy track that could be completed by older children. Start at Rasberry car park, cross the swing bridge and will take you further into vegetation with beautiful views of Rob Roy glacier.
The drive up through the neck to Franz Josef is a spectacular journey, with views of Lake Hawea on the right, and Lake Wanaka on the left we made plenty of stops along the way.
Franz Josef is a small town with lots of activities. We didn't have too much time to spend here and so decided to stick to the Franz Josef Walk which is 1.5 hours return. An easy loop track walk that winds around a rocky riverbed and ends with glacier views, although sadly there is not much glacier left to see.
Overnight stay: Lake Lanthe Matahi Campsite, Cost: $8 per night (per person). They have basic amenities such as toilets, and the lake s gorgeous.
Franz Josef to Arthurs Pass (via Hokitika Gorge) 233km / 145 miles
Time without stops: 3 hours
There isn't a huge amount to see in Hokitika other than the famous Hokitika gorge and its beautifully-blue waters. The road to Hokitika is a 'one way in - one way out' and takes about 30 mins one way to reach it from the highway.
Continuing onto Arthurs Pass, more incredible mountainous scenery. The most well known stop is 'Castle Hill' - hectares of land covered in huge rock formations. There are formed tracks to walk up and have a wonder around to soak in the views from the top.
Devils punch bowl is another attraction 40 minutes from Castle Hill. We saved this for the following morning to enjoy an evening at a low cost campground called 'Avalanche Creek Shelter' which is literally a 20 second drive from the car park for Devils punchbowl waterfall.
Overnight stay: Avalanche Creek Shelter, COST: $8 per night (per person)
Arthurs Pass to Christchurch 148km / 91 miles
Time without stops: 2 hours
A leisurely drive back to Christchurch to drop off the campervan and catch a flight back to Sydney!
If you have time, take a stop at Castle hill for views of obscure but very cool rocks.
Other stops that are worth visiting that we didn’t have time to visit:
The Catlins a sparsley populated area with beautiful beaches and chance to spot some penguins
Abel Tasman in the north of the South island for more beautiful walking tracks in the national park and home to more seal colonies
Our budget - cost breakdown for 3 week trip all in $NZD:
Campervan hire: This will be hugely dependent on company / motorhome choice / length of visit / insurance selection, a campervan for 2 people starts from $60 per day (camper) + insurance. To hire a van like the Vista 2 or the Helix 2 with Wilderness NZ (that we hired) prices start from $120 per day
Flights - Can pick up deals as low as $300 return departing from Sydney across the year
Groceries - $120 per week (we did a big shop at Countdown in Christchurch and then throughout the trip at smaller shops)
Eating out – We ate out a handful of times for brekky, lunch and dinner and spent $350 across the trip. You could definitely just eat in the van and make the trip cheaper.
Tours - $100 (Go Orange - Milford Sound Tour)
Petrol - $400 across 3 weeks
Highest cost: Paid campsite with full facilities $40 - 60 per night per site
Low cost: basic facilities (usually a toilet and camp kitchen) $10-15 per night per person
Freedom camping: $0
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