2 weeks in New Zealand’s South Island, recounted by yours truly
Arriving in Christchurch in New Zealand’s South Island, I suddenly became aware of the fact that this was most likely the furthest I would ever be from home – Christchurch being 18,968 km away from London. Yet this was no source of intimidation, in fact I was simply intrigued to discover this landscape that had seemed so unreachable before but had actually taken only 3 hours from Sydney.
Driving around New Zealand is, in my opinion, the best option – not only do the roads run through the most stunning valleys and coastal regions, but this gives you the freedom to explore the island at your own pace, and tailor your travels to the constantly changing weather. Freedom camping works out to be relatively cheap, as your transport and accommodation are covered by a single payment, though it must be noted that petrol is costly in New Zealand, and gas-guzzling campervans are money-guzzling options. However, I was impressed by the functionality of the Jucy Cruise campers that we had hired, which were spacious enough to sleep four people with plenty of room for a useful kitchenette. During the daytime, the beds can be folded away to ensure there is plenty of room for activities! Having used Wicked campers to travel Australia’s East coast, I can confidently say that our Jucy was an upgrade, in that the vans were cleaner and more liveable, not to mention more spacious.
We spent 2 weeks travelling around the South Island, which was definitely the perfect amount of time – a delicate balance between having enough time to get all the way around without feeling rushed, whilst maintaining a relative level of sanity living out of a van. It may also be worth considering which season you choose to travel in as, although arriving in off-peak tourist season meant nowhere was particularly overcrowded or expensive, the harsh Winter weather took us all by surprise, and at night it often dropped to dismally low temperatures that even 3 jumpers could not protect against. If you, like me, rock up unprepared for the persistent rains, get yourself to the local Kmart to pick up a raincoat and some thermal socks.
Though the weather took a hit on our moral at times, it did not stop us making headway on our route and I can honestly say that 16 days was the perfect amount of time on the South Island, but you could easily spend more if you would prefer. We began our Christchurch-Christchurch loop in May, driving out of the city to park up for the first night at Chamberlains Ford Recreation Reserve – as freedom camping is not allowed within the city’s immediate vicinity. The following morning we drove to Lake Tekapo and saw the Church of the Good Shepherd with its magnificent mountainous backdrop, yet this was outdone by Lake Pukaki, where you can stay right on the waterfront and witness an insane sunset behind the mountains mirrored in the crystal waters. From here we zipped over to the Aoraki Mount Cook National Park and village, where you can take a short hike through the terrain to witness the not-so-blue ‘Blue Lakes’ and the horrifically retreated glacier before camping at the secluded Lake Ohau. Next on our route was Queenstown, which seemed like a bustling city compared to the quiet roads and campsites we had visited prior. The Jucy hostel here offered some respite from the cold van in its clean, cosy pods, which is a particularly good option if you choose to experience Queenstown’s nightlife – your best chance of a night out on this sparsely populated island. A sleepy holiday town, you can find several art galleries and coffee shops to wile away some time, but make sure to stop by Fergburger to taste their infamous, and huge, burgers and pies before continuing on your journey. Te Anau’s bird sanctuary and minimal shops weren’t anything to write home about, though I am sure the Mirror Lakes are much more impressive when the skies are less grey. Following the wet, winding roads down to Milford Sound gave us the chance to take a cruise and get soaked by the impressive and deafening waterfalls.
After staying overnight at the commendable Lumsden freedom campsite (not particularly scenic but has excellent facilities), we rose early and began an anxious drive to Skydive Wanaka. I, personally, had never felt too compelled to throw myself from 12,000 ft, but this is made a lot easier when your tandem skydiver (also a complete stranger) pushes you out the plane. New Zealand, and Wanaka in particularly, offer gorgeous mountainous sights that one can only truly appreciate from such elevation and I am forever grateful that an interval in the otherwise constant rains allowed us to try out this extreme sport. After approximately 5 seconds of screaming, I opened my eyes and decided to stop being scared, instead managing to appreciate the scenery for the remainder of the descent. Though I was not entirely convinced I would live until both of my feet were back on firm soil, this was an amazing experience and we spent the rest of our time wandering around the quiet town of Wanaka and wondering whether or not the whole morning had been some strange communal daydream. The long drive to Franz Josef featured some fantastic but foggy scenery and, upon arrival, we warmed (and finally washed) ourselves in a long stint in the glacial hot pools. The glacier itself offers an insight into the true impact of climate change – its total 3 km retreat a harsh reminder of our impact on the globe, making us even more conscious of how often we were refuelling. The mood was lifted slightly (for my friends, not me) when I proceeded to drop my phone into the shit-pit of the portaloo that evening, which clouded my impression of the otherwise beautiful coastal campsite. Brilliant.
Luckily, Hokitika was our next stop, where we caught sunset at the aptly named Sunset point before scouting out some glow worms under the cloak of darkness. Punikaki, for me, was a highlight; offering the opportunity to eat pancakes at the pancake rocks, cool down in the mist of the blowholes at high tide, and spot rainbows and dolphins just off the shore, this pitstop had a magical lure that made up for the fact I was still using a phone that 2 days ago I had fished out of a portaloo and wiped human faeces from. A phone, however, that still allowed me to take some snaps of the glorious Abel Tasman National Park, through which you can take a hike, choosing from routes of varying lengths and difficulties. After Abel Tasman, we headed to Nelson – a quiet town that offers peace in the Queens Gardens and local art at the Suter Gallery, but not much else. Following our loop back towards Christchurch, we passed through Kaikura, where you can catch a hoard of seals lazing around on the rocks and frolicking in the waves. Beware, if you do choose to venture out to Kaikura point, that you note when high tide is; otherwise you may, like us, find yourself stranded and wading back to your campervan through arctic waters. Arriving back in Christchurch promised our first hot shower in longer than I might like to admit, and we caught a few more of the city’s attractions, including the Cardboard Cathedral and brunch at the artisan Coffee Culture (with a range of alternative specialist coffee flavours). To round off our trip, we proceeded to Te Kotane, where we encountered an interactive and informative insight into the Maori culture.
Having lived in Australia for nearly a year, I noted how much more respect the kiwis seemed to have for the Maori people, compared to the attitude towards Aboriginals – a reflection of how warm and open minded the people of the South Island appeared during our stay. Although I must admit I was glad to return to a warm bed in an apartment that wasn’t on wheels, and the ability to shower as frequently as I liked, I cannot articulate quite how much New Zealand stunned me. With its insane topography, the landscaped and scenery will have you in a permanent state of awe, even if the weather is erratic. I will truly miss the sensational sunsets and being able to see the stars so visibly each night. However, the true magic of our trip was that 7 girls managed to survive 2 weeks living in extremely close quarters, with few showers, and minimal tension.