Rather than skirting around the details, I intend to give you a full rundown of our twelve days in a campervan at the bottom of New Zealand. This may be useful if you’re ever thinking of planning a drive around the lower half of the South Island. Or tedious if you are not.
The driving distances are my approximations. Some of the driving times may seem surprisingly long, but our campervan wasn’t built for speed. Also, some of the roads around here can be a little interesting, with the odd one-way bridge thrown in to make sure you’re paying attention.
In total we covered around 1,100 miles, in a loop down from Christchurch to Dunedin, across to Milford Sound and then back to Christchurch via Queenstown and Wanaka.
We got the chance to experience some amazing wildlife on the Otago Peninsula, topped up on some adrenaline in Queenstown, and witnessed the majesty of Milford Sound.
We also drank plenty of cups of tea in roadside picnic areas, ate beans on toast in a few car parks, and enjoyed the delights of nightly visits to the toilet block.
Day 1 – Christchurch to Akaroa (60 miles / 1.5 hours driving)
I was nervous when we woke early to get our campervan on day one. Not entirely sure why, but I think the prospect of spending nearly two weeks trapped in a tin can may have had something to do it.
We’re not natural campers. Our sole family camping trip in the last ten years was one weekend, in a giant tent, near Cheddar caves. We had a lovely weekend, but needed a proper wash afterwards.
The reason for choosing to travel in an RV wasn’t particularly because we liked the idea of camping, but mainly because it would help us cover more ground. Without the need to plan daily accommodation, we could also be very flexible with our plans. As we were travelling outside of the peak summer season, we didn’t need to pre-book any campsites and were able to move freely whenever we wanted.
In terms of cost, the campervan was slightly more expensive per night than most of the real houses we have stayed in so far. However, I was hoping that the extra accommodation cost would be offset by lower daily food costs, as we could prepare all of our meals on the road.
We opted to rent a 6-berth van from Star RV and were happy with our choice when we picked up our van, bright and early on day 1. It only had 10,000km on the clock and seemed practically brand new. After 30 minutes in the car park finding out how everything worked, we were off.
We didn’t get too far initially, as we headed back into Christchurch to load up on supplies. At this point we discovered that the power point in the van didn’t seem to be working. We were only ten minutes from the depot, so returned to Star RV, aiming to work out whether we were being stupid or whether there was something that needed fixing.
It turns out that the power sockets would only work if we were hooked up to a mains power supply. Reasonably obvious with hindsight, but I did’t mind asking the question. With one little mystery solved, we finally hit the big road.
Our destination for day 1 was Akaroa, on the Banks Peninsula, not far from Christchurch. We’d heard that Akaroa was worth a visit, and we also wanted a relatively short journey to get to grips with driving our new home and setting it up in daylight.
Whilst not a long drive, the road to Akaroa does pass up and over some pretty spectacular hills, so we were soon crawling along, trying to keep at least three wheels on the tarmac. As we reached the top of the last climb, the views down to Akaroa were incredible.
We arrived in late April, so the summer crowds had gone but the afternoon sun was still warm enough to warrant a few cold beers in our new garden. The kids went off to explore the playground.
As we were keen to stay flexible with our plans, we decided to exercise our freedom almost immediately by deciding that we’d stay for two nights in Akaroa rather than heading off tomorrow. The view was too good, the weather forecast suggested more sun, and the kids were nowhere to be seen, playing with some new friends.
Day 2 – Akaroa / Okains Bay
I went for an early morning wander around Akaroa while the rest of the family caught up on some sleep. Akaroa is the only former French settlement in NZ, but I was still surprised to see the gendarmerie in this part of the world.
Unfortunately, I couldn’t locate any French patisseries to make the walking worthwhile, so instead I settled for a coffee from a newly opened café down the main street.
We packed up the campervan for a short drive to Okains Bay, on the other side of the Banks Peninsula. This gave me some more practice at manoeuvring around the mountains, and we wanted to make the most of some last warmth, before our journey headed south into less predictable weather.
Okains Bay was at least two miles of sand, in a picture perfect blue bay, with no signs of humanity. The most hectic scene all day was when we encountered some sheep on their way to fresh grass.
Our first taste of campsite life was a blessing. We got a lovely pitch, with harbour views of Akaroa. The facilities were all spotless. The kids made several new friends and were off playing until it got too dark. I’d even managed to change over our water without breaking anything.
Day 3 – Akaroa to Oamaru (190 miles / 4 hours driving)
Our plan was to head down to Dunedin, before turning west towards Milford Sound. During a visit to a barbers in Nelson, somebody had recommended that we stop off in Oamaru on our drive down SH1.
SH1 is the main state highway in New Zealand, which runs all the way from Auckland to Wellington in the North Island, and then continues down to Invercargill at the bottom of the South Island. While it isn’t exactly a motorway, it’s the quickest route between Christchurch and Dunedin, and so we opted to get some miles under our belt rather than taking potentially more scenic options.
Oamaru was briefly a big town in the 1890’s following a gold boom. At the time, it was as large as Los Angeles. The boom didn’t last very long and the town become too poor to replace its Victorian infrastructure with more modern buildings.
The town now seems to rely quite heavily on tourism, with its relative abundance of Victorian architecture being a selling point. Oamaru also happens to be the birthplace of All Blacks legend Richie McCaw, but I didn’t see any signs of them cashing in on this yet.
Compared to most small towns in NZ, Oamaru does have some lovely examples of Victorian architecture. We’re probably not the target market for Oamaru given that we’re surrounded by Victorian buildings back home, but the town did have a nice quirky feel to it.
What we don’t have back home though is penguins. At least not any wild ones that I know about. Oamaru does have a small blue penguin colony, and we were told that the penguins have been known to wander into our campsite at night.
Quite a few visits out in the dark, torch at the ready, proved that we weren’t going to be so lucky as to spot penguins this easily.
The penguins spend all day at sea, fishing, only returning to the shore each evening if they have young to feed. We could have paid for a grandstand seat at the main colony in Oamaru, but we decided to save our cash because we were planning to visit the colony on the Otago Peninsula tomorrow.
Day 4 – Oamaru to Otago Peninsula (75 miles / 2 hours driving)
A spit of land just off from Dunedin, the Otago Peninsula was on my “must see” list for this trip, on the basis that it sounded beautiful and we had a fair chance of spotting some wildlife.
On the way we stopped off for an obligatory photo shoot at the Moeraki boulders, although Alexandra refused to budge from her nice warm seat just for my benefit.
The sat nav was set for the Royal Albatross centre, which also happens to be home to a large penguin colony.
As the penguins only come back to shore at dusk, the daily tour was set for 6pm, so we had plenty of time to edge our way around Otago’s narrow and winding shoreline.
We caught a glimpse of a sea-lion during our drive, as several other cars had stopped ahead of us to take photos. I wasn’t quick enough on this occasion to get the camera ready as the sea-lion poked its head back under water and disappeared while I was juggling the camera case.
The penguins proved much easier to spot, as we were firmly encamped on a wooden platform above their nests as dusk fell. During the breeding season, this colony can have over 200 birds returning home each evening, but we knew the numbers would be lower because we’d missed peak season by a few weeks.
The kids were becoming impatient after several seconds of waiting in the cold and dark, to spot some birds they’d already seen before at Bristol Zoo. But their mood improved rapidly as the first little creatures waddled up out of the sea. At first there were around ten penguins in a little group, looking slightly surprised to be surrounded by a group of tourists pointing cameras in their direction.
In total, we saw around forty penguins emerge from the darkness, and each new arrival on the shore was greeted with the same fascination. As we’d missed peak penguin season, we also missed peak tourist season, so we had nearly free rein of the penguin lookout and could follow each new set of arrivals back to their nest.
One particular bird got separated from the herd (I’m sure that’s not the correct technical term for a group of penguins, but you get the idea), and we watched it scramble around on the rocks for a few minutes. We were hoping the kids weren’t about to witness one of those David Attenborough documentary moments, when the lone penguin gets swallowed whole by a killer whale. At one point a group of seagulls flew overhead and the poor little bird raced for cover, presumably frightened by the size of the wings overhead and not worrying so much about the particular variety of bird that might be about to eat him. Fortunately for the penguin, everything turned out just fine, and after some final acrobatics on the rocks, he made it back home safe and sound.
As we were now pros on the campervan hook-up routine, we confidently sauntered into our Portobello road campsite in the pitch black. Everybody in New Zealand appears to go to bed by 9pm, so our only worry was keeping the noise down while the kids recovered from their all their wildlife excitement.
Day 5 – Otago Peninsula to Te Anau (180 miles / 4 hours driving)
I believe that the weather in Dunedin isn’t exactly renowned for blue skies, but it still came as something of a shock to wake up in the middle of a monsoon. After some decent weather in New Zealand, we were scratching our heads as to what to do on a rainy day in Dunedin.
I quickly generated an exciting list of indoor attractions, including a sprinkling of interesting sounding museums, but I couldn’t rally the family on this occasion. The kids decided that it was their turn to pick the day’s amusements. It was no great surprise when they decided we should go swimming as it had been at least a week since they’d properly got their heads underwater.
To soften the blow of another trip to the swimming pool, I managed to find a lovely pool that just happened to be bang in the middle of our route across to Te Anau.
The approach into Gore didn’t scream tourist stopover, but the local aquatic centre (some kiwi terminology for you), put our local swimming baths to shame. There was an indoor ice-rink attached for one thing, and the pool was perfectly set-up for families, with some inflatables thrown in for free. You’re lucky at our local pool if they let you in, and even if they do you have to work around whatever aqua-aerobic lessons happen to be taking place at the same time.
Even with some swimming to break up the journey, it felt like a long drive today. We opted for the quickest route again because we were keen to spend a few days around Te Anau and the Milford Sound, but there wasn’t too much to see on the way apart from farmland. A more scenic driving route would have taken us through the Catlins, but we’ll save that for our next trip.
Day 6 – Te Anau
A zero-mile day was welcome today, and the furthest we went was for a walk along the lake to the Fjordland National Park information centre. There wasn’t a huge amount to see here, but Alexandra managed to locate a short video on Milford Sound, which wetted our appetite for tomorrow.
Te Anau was a nice place to spend a quiet day, with a peaceful lake front and snow capped mountains.
Our campsite was next door to a large kids’ playground, just off the main street, which kept the little ones happy while we caught up on some lounging.
A local pie shop, Miles Better Pies, provided a nice change from cheese sandwiches at lunch, but it’s still proving hard to beat the pies at Te Papa in Wellington.
Part 2 of our journey around the south island. Very excited about cruising Milford Sound and then taking it easy around Queenstown and Wanaka.