Spectacular scenery, wintry adventures, family bonding and grilled cheese sandwiches define a 10-day motor home tour of New Zealand’s South Island.
It should be called the land of the long white motor home, I thought, as we waved to yet another campervan sharing the scenic stretch of coast-hugging road with us. It was day one of our road trip adventure around the South Island and already we had passed a handful of them, doing that little obligatory wave all motor homers do.
In any given month, hundreds of vans just like ours are touring around the South Island. Arriving at Christchurch Airport mid-afternoon, the amicable Amanda from Blue Moon Campervan Rentals led us out to the carpark to familiarise us with this large, clunky white beast that was to serve as our transport and shelter for the next 10 days.
Our web research had led us to choose this company over some of the bigger names like Britz and Maui for a few reasons: the main one being that the van had a gas heater for the nights we wanted to go bush. All linen was supplied in the cost; it came with two bikes on the back; and the daily rate was on a par with the biggies.
While our three children clambered impatiently around their new home, Amanda gave us a comprehensive run-down on its workings. Having previously toured Australia in a caravan, we weren’t daunted about such tasks as filling gas bottles, opening awnings or turning tables into beds. The challenging new chore for us was learning to empty the on-board toilet tank at what they so aptly call “dump stations”. Let’s just say it’s not a pleasant job and when you rent your motor home, you’ll be given your compulsory lesson in dumping. Make sure you pay close attention.
Essential instructions over, Amanda kindly offered to stay onboard and personally direct us to a holiday park. We spent our first and only night in Christchurch at the Top 10 Meadows Holiday Park. Top 10 is the major chain in holiday parks and this one was fairly typical of the standard you’ll find all around the South Island, with grassy (make that muddy if it’s rained) sites; clean, modern showers and a children’s playground.
Christchurch to Kaikoura
Like snails, with our fully intact home behind us, we took to the road at a conservative pace. We were here for the scenery, not for the city sights, so a brief walking tour of Christchurch and a few grinds of the gears later, we headed north on Highway 1. We stopped and made the first of many roadside lunches at Gore Bay, a grey-pebbled beach where you could skim stones forever. Open toasted sandwiches with tuna and New Zealand tasty cheese made in the van’s little gas grill became our standard on-board lunch.
The southern approach into Kaikoura was our first of many stunning scenic drives on the South Island. Emerging from a series of tunnels dug into the side of the cliff, we saw snow-capped mountains meeting the expanse of Pacific Ocean.
The Kaikoura Peninsula provides access to all kinds of marine wildlife, including a wild seal colony. You’ll find plenty of these creatures lolling about on rocks at the edge of the car park on Fyffe Quay. Matt, our 8 year old, was leading the way to get a closer look when a hulking seal heavily disguised as a rock popped up and growled at him. Once Matt recovered from the shock, the seal encounter became his coolest moment of the trip.
Kaikoura to Reefton via Hanmer Springs.
Maintaining our conservative pace because a) the van was akin to a heavy truck and wouldn’t go any faster, b) the roads were narrow; c) the roads were icy; or d) all of these, we headed across to the west coast.
Hanmer Springs (the kids delighted in saying this name with a thick Kiwi accent - “Henmer Sprengs”) is an upmarket little alpine village close to the ski slopes of Mt Lyford.
The brochure photos of its steaming thermal springs surrounded by snow-covered rocks looked extremely enticing, but on our arrival on this cold, snow-free day, the springs looked pretty much like any other public heated swimming pool. Ever budget-conscious, we decided it wasn’t worth the NZ$60 just to get wet. The kid-friendly alternative was a game of putt-putt golf at an Aztec-themed course, one of several in this pretty but touristy town.
We crossed to the west coast via the Lewis Pass: the most popular and scenic way is Arthur’s Pass but the scenery on our chosen route certainly didn’t disappoint. While Mum and Dad revelled in the snow-capped mountains, hairy one-lane bridges and vast rivers, the kids settled in to one of their daily games of Harry Potter Uno at the table in the back.
A pit stop at a Reefton grocery store for dinner supplies and we headed 10 kilometres out of town to test out a Department of Conservation campsite. These are natural reserves with basic facilities such as fireplaces and toilets where the fees range from $3 to $12 per person. The informal sites are free.
This campsite, Slab Creek, was a lush, forested haven next to a flowing creek. Three things made us realise we were now on the rain-sodden west coast: the grass here was mostly mud; the picnic tables were coated in moss; and the wood was too damp to light a fire. It didn’t matter. Our van was cosy and we had this silent, wet wonderland to ourselves for the night.
Reefton to Franz Josef Glacier.
The rain followed us south along the Tasman coast towards Greymouth and into the West Coast’s biggest town, Hokitika, where we stopped for a walk. Greenstone, or New Zealand jade, generates much of the income around here, as do other raw materials like bone, gold, timber and shell, causing a plethora of souvenir shops.
These shops are still worth a browse - the kids got to watch glass blowing, and jade and bone carving before making their little contribution to the tourist dollar by buying bone and pauau shell necklaces.
Another two hours south brought us into the much-anticipated Franz Josef Glacier. By now, we were always allowing for extra travel time because our trusty Blue Moon van only liked to sit at around 80 or 90 km/h on the highway.
Despite threatening clouds and slightly apprehensive children we started our walk into the Glacier around 3pm. At the end of a short bush trail, we found ourselves on the expansive river bed carved by the glacier looking towards the great slab of ice in the distance. As we made our way along the trail, I felt incredibly insignificant in this awesome landscape. Four year-old Meg needed a few piggy-backs enroute, while the older two easily handled the 90 minute walk.
It’s not possible to access the glacier face without a guide these days but as a family we were perfectly content with our view of this natural wonder.
As we checked into the Holiday Park in Franz Josef for the night, my husband Steve growled that we were paying three times as much to park the van on a patch of gravel within spitting distance of other motor-homers, compared with the peaceful and often more picturesque isolation of a Conservation campsite. The big difference, I pointed out, was the long, hot spacious shower I was about to enjoy in the park facilities, compared with a rushed, awkward shower in the motor home.
In fact, on the nights we “roughed it” in Conservation campsites, we all chose to stay dirty rather than use the motor home shower.
Franz Josef Glacier to Lake Paringa via Fox Glacier.
Another day, another glacier. Fox Glacier, only 23 kilometres south of Franz Josef, is not as spectacular but the view of the face is better. The rain pelted down just as we arrived back to the warmth of the van so we stayed put in the car park and lunched on tuna melts, hot chocolate and coffee. When you’re travelling with hungry kids, it’s an absolute bonus to be able to whip up lunch on the spot.
Travelling south on Highway 6, we chose a DOC campsite at Lake Paringa for our overnight stop, arriving with fresh salmon we had just bought from a salmon farm about seven kilometres up the road.
As Matt and Meg skimmed stones over this pristine, glassy lake, we dared our 10 year-old Kate to go for an icy dip for a meagre $2. She took up the challenge with gusto, even posing for photos in her swimmers to impress her schoolmates.
Lake Paringa to Wanaka via Haast Pass.
Haast Pass is the lowest possible crossing over the Southern Alps. This gorgeous drive takes us through the northernmost end of the beautifully named Mount Aspiring National Park. We go past waterfalls gushing through rainforests onto the edge of the road (even the kids stop playing Harry Potter Uno to look at these) and have a tea stop in gale-force winds on the edge of Lake Hawea as we head into the ski-resort town of Wanaka.
Going on local knowledge, we spend a couple of hours wandering through the Wanaka Transport and Toy Museum. For a reasonable family deal of $20, we saw the largest collection of toys imaginable as well as plenty of planes, cars, bikes and buses.
We celebrated our wedding anniversary that evening with a hearty roast lamb dinner at Fitzpatricks, a child-friendly pub.
Wanaka to Queenstown.
On the way out of Wanaka, the kids begged us to stop at Stuart Landsborough’s Puzzling World. There’s a leaning clock tower out the front so you can’t miss it. This place is truly great fun, with all kinds of optical illusions, a great maze and a café where you can sit and play challenging puzzles.
We arrive at the home of our friends Phil and Justine, who insist we sleep in the house for the three nights we plan to stay with them in Queenstown. We politely decline, saying we’re quite comfortable in the van. By our second night, the forecast of snow, the warmth of an open fire and Phil’s insistence lure us in. It’s actually a relief to be able to stretch out and have some space after the confines of the motor home.
DAYS SEVEN & EIGHT
We are in the adventure capital of the world “so this is your official adventure day”, our local friend Phil tells us.
Adventure No 1: A charter flight with Glenorchy Air over Mount Aspiring and Milford Sound. A merciful break in the weather gives us a truly spectacular view over snowcapped peaks. The flight couldn’t be smoother, our pilot couldn’t be more professional but as we bank to get husband Steve closer to the snow for a few photos, my guts leap into my throat and there they stay, until we touch down, 20 minutes later. I kick myself for not downing a ginger tablet before boarding.
Adventure No 2: A tour with Dart Wilderness Adventure Tours, beginning with a bus ride beside snowy paddocks and a brief trek through an eery, mossy ancient beech forest. A cup of hot soup by the icy river settles my turbulent tummy as we wait to board the jet boat for an absolutely thrilling, 70km ride along the Dart River. The 60-minute ride takes us between ice-capped mountains, past untouched wilderness. I am thankful for the boat’s heated handrails.
We opt for softer adventure on our second day, with a gentle play in the snow below the Coronet Peak ski fields. Parking the motorhome up the mountain as far as we safely could, we slid down little hills on big plastic bags, chucked snowballs and thought about how expensive it would be to take a family of five skiing.
Queenstown to Te Anau
We jump back in the van with laundered clothes and fresh food supplies. It’s only 170km from Queenstown to Te Anau, the key stopping point before a trip into Milford Sound. As advised, we checked road conditions into Milford at Te Anau before proceeding further north.
There’s a string of Conservation camps along the 120 km stretch from Te Anau to Milford. We picked one called Henry Creek, taking the rough track to the end, which brought us to the pebbled foreshore of Lake Te Anau. We didn’t have to imagine ourselves in a travel brochure - this isolated spot of total serenity was it. We skimmed pebbles across the lake as we watched the sun set.
That night, in the complete silence, all five of us snuggled under the doona and watched the third Lord of the Rings movie on a laptop. It was a defining moment of family travel bonding.
The drive into Milford Sound is pure awesomeness. It can also be treacherous, especially for inexperienced drivers, so please take all the road warnings and advice seriously.
The kids quickly discovered the danger of black ice as they stepped out of the van and slid over in their sneakers. We chose the Red Boat Cruise, a relaxing one hour 45 minute ride through the Sound, past deafening waterfalls and scenery to surpass everything we’d seen before. There’s a reason this place is overrun with tourists. Just put Milford on your list.
A few tips
Be prepared for rain, and more rain, especially on the west coast. Rain interferes with the picture perfect scenery. The locals drive like lunatics on those South Island bendy roads. Work out how long you can cope in a confined space with your family then book your trip for two days less than that.