Exploring New Zealand’s South Island by Campervan

by Daniel Nikulin
Road to Mount Cook New Zealand

As we carefully turned the corner, an emphatic and heartfelt “Whoa!” rang in unison from the back of the vehicle. I panicked and scrambled to see if I was steering into oncoming traffic.

Nope, same thing as a few minutes ago – just pure, unadulterated wonder and awe. Startled, I couldn’t do anything but smile and quickly half-scan the view with an eye on the road in hopes of catching the exact same vista the others did and secretly wished someone else was behind the wheel for this stretch of the road.

The beauty before us was enthralling and truly breathtaking. I had to pull over. I parked in a gravel ‘scenic lookout’ lot, stepped out and took a deep breath. The freshness in the air felt foreign if not alien for I have never smelled air that fresh before – ever. I thought about what it took to build the road we were on. The Southern Alps were not what I expected. They were enormous. Gigantic; the sweeping clouds hovering, ever-changing, cutting the horizon in half with snowy, rugged peaks jutting out from the tops of them, as if to reach for the sun through the clouds.


We walked towards the forest behind us and stood in front of a wooden sign explaining the flora and fauna, the various types of ferns and the half a dozen or so hiking trails we could take to reach the same ‘hidden’ waterfall. What felt like a planned activity was a complete fluke and turned out to be a brilliant surprise. We picked a path and followed it, feeling like we were in on some great, secret treasure hunt. The hundred foot waterfall at the end of the trail was pristine. Its water as fresh as the air and we all took a good drink from its pool, snapped a few pictures and slowly made our way back to our campervan.


“Well, hello there!” Earlier, I noticed a picture of a small, hawk-like bird on the wooden sign and a bold ‘Do Not Feed’ notice but there, in all its glory, was the real thing. The kea is a gorgeous, highly intelligent and curious creature and happens to be the world’s only alpine parrot, endemic to New Zealand’s South Island and found nowhere else on earth. Its large wingspan, striking rusty-orange feathers and curved beak make it look like a bird of prey and they were once considered a nuisance and hunted by the local sheep farmers. They are now a protected species and thriving. We were a few kilometers from Arthur’s Pass and decided to stop for lunch.

The lamb shank placed before me was ridiculous. Sitting comfortably on a simple potato mash and happily drowning in its own gravy, it was perfectly fall-off-the-bone braised, delicious and satisfying. The meat pies the others tried were also outstanding, with a golden, flaky crust and a generous helping of stew inside. Over lunch, there was talk of ‘Lord of the Rings’ and where exactly it was filmed but I’ve never been much for fantasy and I opted for a quick walk outside before we headed out again.

lamb shanks

November, New Zealand’s spring, brings unsettled weather to much of the South Island but the dramatic sky, navigable fjords and glaciers as well as the smaller number of tourists make it a great time to visit. I came to a small bridge over a babbling, crystal-clear stream and scurried down the slope to the water. Is that a …? Yup, a beautiful little pan-size brook trout (who are only found in the cleanest fresh water streams) swayed in the current, completely unafraid for it has never seen a fishing lure, I’m sure. Ok, back on the road.

It was only day two into our one week campervan adventure and already, I didn’t think our jaws could drop any lower. As much as I wanted to be a passenger on this journey, I was also incredibly excited to be in a vehicle of our own instead of a motor coach tour bus. Casual, unplanned stops brought wonderful encounters with some of the warmest people on the planet, reminiscent of Canada’s genuine Maritime friendliness and hospitality. Our first night was spent in a lodge in Hanmer Springs after a good soak in its legendary hot pools. Today we drove and tomorrow, we grab our crampons and ice picks for a stroll up the Franz Josef Glacier.


Located in Westland Tai Poutini National Park on the island’s west coast, the 12 kilometer Franz Josef Glacier is rare in that it is one of the world’s few glaciers to be in a temperate environment (less than 300 meters above sea level), ideal for exploration by just about anyone. Enthusiastic, knowledgeable guides lead hikers through the glacier’s valley and up to a wall of ice at the terminus of the glacier. Shorts and t-shirts at the base become long pants, sweaters and a hat by the time you reach the end of the hike and the views along the way are other-worldly throughout.

NZ campervan road & mountains

Exhausted from our climb, we spend the night in a ‘Holiday Park’ which are plentiful throughout the island and a great way to save some cash along the way. Holiday Parks provide sites for everything from tents to campervans to motorhomes, some with a communal lodge, a shared kitchen and bathroom facilities. They are often on a lake or near a beach and the general vibe always friendly and relaxed. Choose from an electrically powered site or simply park and sleep for cheap. Drained, we parked and slept.

campervan park

Queenstown is the adrenaline-fueled Alpine mecca for ski and snowboard enthusiasts, bungee jumpers, canyon swingers, sky divers, jet-boaters and just about anything else tied to a thrill. It is also completely beautiful and picturesque. Intimate in its design and layout with really only a handful of streets, nestled perfectly in the surrounding mountains, it reminded me instantly of the village of Whistler. Board shops and travel agencies dominate the streets with a good helping of bars and restaurants in between, making it perfectly clear why many young travellers end up spending months, if not years here.

Heading out to the coast from Queenstown, words couldn’t describe what we were to see next. Milford Sound is set in Fiordland National Park and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The sheer size of the surrounding mountains (appropriately called The Remarkables), interrupted by glacial waterfalls plummeting down the cliffs and into the dark waters of the Tasman Sea were completely humbling and the prettiest part of this half of the country. Boats, sometimes accompanied by seals and dolphins, can be rented and single day cruises can be taken as views from the water offer the best vantage point of the region and completely blew us away.


The highlights from our first few days in New Zealand brought immense anticipation for the remainder of our trip, knowing how very different the North Island was from what we just saw in the South. All we knew for certain was that we were doing it right, seeing it all how it was meant to be seen, from the comfort of our own vehicle and at our own pace.


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