Twelve Nights In A Tin Can, NZ South Island (Part 2)

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.

Family travel blog - drive to Milford Sound

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.

Family travel blog NZ

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.

Family travel blog - driving to Milford Sound

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.

Family travel blog

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.

Family travel blog at Milford Sound

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.

Family travel blog

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.

Family travel blog Milford Sound

We got incredibly lucky today. The overnight rain had died down, leaving in its place an amazing series of waterfalls.

Family travel blog at Milford Sound

We also spotted some fur seals relaxing on the rocks, which was a real bonus.

Family travel blog

The two-hour cruise was over too quickly and we could have happily stayed on the water all day.

Family travel blog at Milford Sound

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.

Family travel blog

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.

Family travel blog Queenstown luge

The views back across Queenstown from the top of the gondola were also pretty special.

Family travel blog

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.

Family travel blog Crown Range

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.

Family travel blog

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.

Family travel blog

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.

Family travel blog in New Zealand

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.

Next Time

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.

Twelve Nights In A Tin Can, NZ South Island (Part 1)

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.

Family travel blog - Akaroa

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.

Family travel blog - Akaroa

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.

Family travel blog

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.

Family travel blog - Oamaru

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.

Family travel blog - NZ campervan

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.

Family travel blog - Otago Peninsula

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.

Family travel blog

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.

Family travel blog - Te Anau

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.

Next Time

Part 2 of our journey around the south island. Very excited about cruising Milford Sound and then taking it easy around Queenstown and Wanaka.

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