The first half of our New Zealand road-trip took us from Christchurch to Te Anau, including an amazing visit to see penguins on the Otago Peninsula.
The weather has been very kind to us so far, despite the fact that we are heading into late Autumn and snow is visible on higher peaks. What’s more, after a week trapped in a moving vehicle, we’re all still talking to each other and keen to push on to our next destination.
Day 7 – Te Anau to Milford Sound (70 miles / 2-4 hours driving)
I have been looking forward to seeing Milford Sound since I first started planning our round the world trip. We set aside a whole day to get there, even though you could complete the miles in a couple of hours if you didn’t feel the need to stop.
There are no shops in Milford, or petrol stations for that matter, so after a re-supply in Te Anau we set off at a leisurely pace down the dead-end road. We were in absolutely no hurry. I barely got the camper above 60 kmph.
The road wasn’t busy and it was nice to be travelling at such a relaxed pace. The slower speed also suited the camper better, as the bone shacking vibrations calmed down a little and fewer pieces of crockery were flying around than usual.
The weather forecast for the day ahead was for some rain, followed by some really torrential rain, with a few showers thrown in for good measure. Milford Sound is renowned for being wet, and I kept telling everyone that rain was good because it would top up all the waterfalls.
Pretty sure my constant optimism can be somewhat annoying, but I feel it’s my job to keep up morale when the kids are wondering why on earth we are “going on holiday to somewhere rainy”.
Driving along the road to Milford Sound, nearly every bend seems to reveals a stunning panorama. The approaching clouds seem to make it even more atmospheric, and it feels as though you are approaching a hidden world.
To get into Milford Sound requires driving through the 1.2km long, Homer Tunnel. Only opened in 1953, this is a one-way access route, with traffic lights at either end to control entry. The tunnel literally looks as though it has just been blasted out of the rock, with no cement lining and water dripping from the roof.
Travelling through the Homer Tunnel, on a steep downwards incline, we emerged into a world of waterfalls.
A bunch of Kea birds were gathered at the side of the road, clearly used to posing for photos. One of them jumped onto a nearby car and started to eat some plastic roof trim, so we decided to move on.
We got out to stretch our legs at the Chasm, which is around 10km before the end of the road. Kiera decided to sport a little off the shoulder arm-sling, following some over exuberant trampolining the day before. Luckily this didn’t impair either her ability to walk or her ability to complain about having to walk.
There is a ten minute loop walk to reach the Chasm, which is a spectacular series of carved rocks, formed by torrents of water flowing through a narrow gully. The water was so powerful that you could hear it long before it became visible. Even the kids were impressed once we got there, which is saying something given that there was no gift shop for miles around.
We stayed the night at Milford Sound Lodge, which has powered RV sites set amidst lush rainforest. The idea was to catch a morning cruise tomorrow, thus avoiding the crush of tour buses from Queenstown that disgorge people onto the lunchtime sailings.
The rainforest setting didn’t disappoint, as the heavens opened nearly all night. In theory this was excellent news, making for even more spectacular waterfalls along Milford Sound tomorrow. In practice, it also made it quite tricky to sleep, given that it sounded as though the rain was about to come through the campervan roof at any moment.
Day 8 – Milford Sound Cruise / Drive to Queenstown (180 miles / 4 hours driving)
We were booked onto the 10.30am nature cruise with Real Journeys, which would take us down Milford Sound to the Tasman Sea. And hopefully back again.
We were at the quay by 9.40am, keeping up my track record of always arriving way too early to catch any sort of transport connection. The kids are already fond of spending at least 3 hours in every airport we visit, on the basis that I refuse to arrive “late”.
As hoped, there weren’t any tour buses in the harbour when we set sail, so we had the boat nearly all to ourselves.
The scale of Milford Sound is difficult to comprehend, because on all sides you’re surrounded by mountains rising vertically from the water, up to peaks reaching a mile high.
500 foot tall waterfalls appeared relatively small set against the surrounding vastness. It was only when the boat pulled over for a closer look that you could get some sense of perspective.
We got incredibly lucky today. The overnight rain had died down, leaving in its place an amazing series of waterfalls.
We also spotted some fur seals relaxing on the rocks, which was a real bonus.
The two-hour cruise was over too quickly and we could have happily stayed on the water all day.
Once back on dry land, we weaved our way past the newly arrived gaggle of tour buses, and hit the road to Queenstown.
Queenstown came as something of a shock to the system. After a serene morning in Milford Sound, I wasn’t prepared for the bright lights of town. I’ve got used to arriving into places with one high street and a small handful of people. This has suited me fine.
Queenstown seemed too busy for my liking. There were traffic lights, which hadn’t been necessary for the last few hundred miles of our trip, and an over abundance of stores selling bungee jumps.
It was dark by the time we arrived, but we set-off for a short walk around town to get our bearings and find some food. The town seemed more manageable once we had ditched the campervan and we were looking forward to exploring further in the day light.
Day 9 – Queenstown
Queenstown was much quieter at 9am than 9pm.
We spent the morning catching up on some laundry. Not spectacularly interesting I’ll admit, but after more than a week of camping, perfectly necessary.
Kiera had spotted a leaflet for the Queenstown luge ride back in Te Anau, which she had been faithfully carrying around ever since. She wasn’t quite so sure about the idea when she saw the gondola ride that was necessary to reach the top of the mountain, from where the luge ride descended.
At these moments, we’ve found that the best course of action is to move quickly. So we bundled her into the gondola before she had too much time to over think the health and safety implications of riding in a plastic box, attached to a bit of string, up a very steep hill.
The luge ride was great fun. There was a beginners track suitable for the whole family, and a steeper track that meant I got to go really fast and pretend to be a racing driver.
The views back across Queenstown from the top of the gondola were also pretty special.
After exhausting our driving skills, it was time to ease off the adrenaline and so we made our way back down the mountain for a few beers in Queenstown.
There were plenty of bars that we could have spent hours exploring in more detail, but bellies were starting to rumble. We headed for the long queue of people snaking out of Ferg’s Burgers to see what all the fuss was about. We had a very tasty burger and sat talking with a family from Canada who were also travelling around.
We learned that there were two potential routes to reach Wanaka, our destination for tomorrow, and our friends from Canada recommended taking the scenic drive across the Crown range. This turned out to be very good advice.
Day 10 – Queenstown to Wanaka (75 miles / 1.5 hours driving)
The scenic route between Queenstown and Wanaka involves winding up to an altitude of 1,100 metres across the Crown range. The road was open, which was a good start, but it makes you think twice that somebody has to decide whether the road is dangerous enough to be closed.
The drive rewarded us with some gorgeous views back to Queenstown and the surrounding mountains.
Puzzling World awaited us at Wanaka, with a giant outdoor maze and a series of indoor illusion rooms. We tackled the maze and appeared to be making good progress, until a highly irritating final corner kept us walking around in circles for what felt like days.
The illusion rooms provided some good photo opportunities, but I was keen to get back into the fresh air after an hour.
Wanaka proved to be another lovely spot, with a high street of cafes and bars fronting onto a crystal clear lakefront. Situated around 300 metres above sea level, the town is close to some good ski fields, but for now the only snow was on nearby mountain tops.
Day 11 – Wanaka
With a whole day to explore Wanaka, we decided to hire some bikes and cycle around the lakefront.
What was supposed to be a gentle meander along a flat cycle path, soon turned into a five-hour expedition, involving more hills than I’d have preferred. The views were so amazing around each new corner, that we kept pressing ahead when we sensibly ought to have turned back.
Feeling reinvigorated, but also a little exhausted, we hobbled back into town for some very late lunch at the Big Fig.
The remainder of our afternoon was spent recovering, before we hunkered down for a chilly night in the tin can.
Day 12 – Wanaka to Geraldine (180 miles / 4 hours driving)
It was time to start making some progress back towards Christchurch, as we have a date with a warm hotel bed.
We opted to take the inland route via Lake Tekapo and through MacKenzie country. This was New Zealand as I will remember it, with endless rolling hills and farmland, interspersed with unbelievable mountain views.
Most of the route was covered in low cloud, which meant we didn’t catch a good glimpse of Mt Cook, but the clouds lifted just enough at Lake Tekapo to afford us our last close-up view of the southern alps.
We decided to stay the night in Geraldine. A quiet country town, named after an Irishman, James FitzGerald. We treated ourselves to some typical Irish fare, with a curry at the Royal India, which made up for several nights of beans on toast in the campervan.
Day 13 – Geraldine to Christchurch (80 miles / 2 hours driving)
A short final drive today, to give ourselves a chance to condense all of our belongings back into two suitcases. To make the job less stressful, we headed straight into Christchurch and parked up opposite the Margaret Mahy playground. While we should have been supervising the kids, we instead made short work of the packing.
Twelve nights in the campervan felt about right for our first attempt at living in the wild. We had an amazing trip and the van was the best way for us to get around so many places in a relatively short space of time.
Compared to the rest of our time in NZ, we also spent a little less money on day-to-day living costs, because we always had a fridge on hand to meet the kids’ voracious feeding time requirements.
We had one final night in Christchurch, staying in a hotel near the airport, ready for an early morning flight to Perth. It felt strange to be living back indoors, but it was nice to have a long shower in our own private bathroom.
We’ve come to the end of our time in New Zealand. I have been looking forward to this visit for so long that I am sad to be leaving, but already thinking about how we can plan a return visit.
We’re heading to Australia next, starting with a week in Perth, before heading down to the southern coast of Western Australia.
Thanks Dan for taking me for a ride with you in NZ. I like your idea of staying overnight at Milford Sound and catching an early cruise to avoid crowds. I’ll copy that approach. Like you every time I read about the busy Queenstown, I don’t think I want to spend much time there. Love the photos of your family.
Thank you Keng. I would absolutely recommend the overnight in Milford Sound. There isn’t anything to do particularly, but that’s the beauty I think, and the morning cruises are definitely quieter. As for Queenstown, it was good fun in the end, but it didn’t really feel like NZ to me, or at least not like anywhere else in NZ that we visited.
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Milford sound is on my “must” list for NZ but i’ve been waiting for the kids to be older to do the track. But a cruise is a great idea! Maybe already next time then… happy travels in Australia, another great country to travel!
Yes, I like the look of walking the track as well, but I don’t think my kids would make it for a good few years. The cruise was definitely worthwhile, and it was magical to just be there.
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I’ve really enjoyed your photos of the stunning scenery (and my sister’s pained expressions in the cold and rain!)
So glad you’ve had such a great time in NZ and impressed you are still speaking after all that time in a confined space!
Yes, your sister doesn’t particularly relish the cold, which is why she’s wearing seven layers of clothes in most of the pictures from Queenstown / Milford Sound. Even that’s not always been enough as the camper did get quite chilly at night. In slightly warmer climes now, although everybody else in Perth seems to think it’s now winter – it’s 20 odd degrees, so we’re all walking around in shorts and t-shirts while the locals are wearing bobble hats.
Well hopefully she’ll be smiling in the next photos? Jealous of the weather – the last 2 days it has rained non stop in Derbyshire!
What a great adventure…. sounds like the camper van was the perfect way to do this leg of your trip? The cruise on Milford Sound must’ve been magical, brilliant idea to stay nearby overnight and catch the early cruise avoiding the later on herds of tourists 😄
Yes, the campervan has been brilliant. I was slightly unsure as to whether we’d survive spending so much time together in a confined space, but it was actually very convenient to have everything in one place and food in the fridge whenever the kids got peckish. The cruise on Milford Sound was perfect, and the whole experience of spending a day in the valley was unforgettable. You can also take kayaks out on Milford Sound, but our kids weren’t quite old enough to do it. Cheers, Dan