This is our full New Zealand South Island itinerary from Christchurch to the ferry in Picton and all the beautiful scenes, stunning roads and speechless spaces in between. During our 5 week New Zealand Road Trip, we spent 3 weeks in the South Island and 2 weeks in the North Island.
In New Zealand, a South Island road trip is the perfect way to see just how stunning this island is with our stops including the usual highlights such as Milford Sound, Arthur’s Pass and Franz Josef Glacier but also a few stops off the beaten track such as the steampunk town of Oamaru, Tasman Glacier National Park and seeing penguins in the wild in Timaru.
We will warn, this post is long but it covers everything you need to know including driving times between destinations, the best places to stay during your South Island road trip and includes a map of our route. So pour yourself a cuppa and get taking notes
BEFORE YOUR NEW ZEALAND SOUTH ISLAND ROAD TRIP BEGINS
Where to find Car Hire
You may know that you can find the cheapest flights using Skyscanner, but did you know it is one of the best car hire comparison sites too? For your South Island road trip price up car hire & bringing a tent vs campervan hire. Sometimes it will be around the same cost but it may also prove cheaper. Remembering, if there are 4-5 of you in a group you can split the cost of hire + fuel making your South Island road trip even cheaper.
Campervan Hire South Island
If you are wanting to self drive New Zealand’s South Island, we would highly recommend campervan hire. We hired wee Cathy from Traveller’s Autobarn, they were affordable and had amazing customer service, we can’t recommend them enough. Want to know how we got the cheapest deal and how much our campervan hire cost? We put together the ultimate guide to New Zealand in a campervan which not only includes a full budget breakdown but routes, travel hacks, cooking tips and more!
Why not cook up a storm in your campervan?
- Recipes with ideas for breakfast, lunch & dinner
- Digital E-book so you can download instantly
- Use offline on your phone, tablet, laptop or print off
- Recipe ideas without the need for bulky cookbooks or Wi-Fi
Apps to Download
We did warn this New Zealand South Island itinerary is super detailed and with limited WiFi on the road you may struggle to Google as you go, so instead star our suggestions onto Google maps and then you can use this road trip itinerary offline.
Read our best apps for backpackers post for more info about Google Stars as well as the apps that saved us time, money and stress during not only our South Island road trip but all trips.
Road Trip Essentials
For a safe, stress free road trip don’t forget to pack these road trip essentials. Our tried & tested packing list can also be downloaded to your phone so you can use the checklist offline – ideal for this South Island road trip when WiFi will be scarce!
NZ South Island Itinerary Map
NEW ZEALAND ACCOMMODATION - SOUTH ISLAND
Camping on the South Island
As our NZ South Island itinerary was on a budget we camped our way around the island. To be honest, we feel falling asleep under the stars and waking up to the epic New Zealand nature is the best way to experience this stunning country – not to mention one of the cheapest accommodation options as free campsites are easy to find.
We stayed in some incredible camping grounds in the South Island and our guide includes all costs, handy tips and even a free downloadable cheat sheet to help you find the best campsites during your New Zealand South Island road trip.
Don’t forget these camping essentials if you are heading for tent life.
If the great outdoors are not your thing, a good happy medium is Airbnb as you will have access to kitchen facilities which will keep your cooking costs down as you won’t need to eat out, but you’ll have all the home comforts. Airbnb is also great if you plan on glamping in New Zealand as there are some amazing quirky glamping sites for a unique place to stay.
As a tip, did you know many of the South Island campgrounds can be booked on Booking.com? It is ideal to book ahead especially in peak season. We used Booking.com often during our South Island road trip for the best campsite deals but it also our favourite place to look for budget accommodation. If you search your location then filter “price – low to high” and then filter by rating “highest first” this is the best way to find cheap but comfortable accommodation.
DAY 1: ARRIVAL IN CHRISTCHURCH
After our crazy time backpacking Fiji due to Cyclone Gita we arrived in Christchurch ready to sleep! We had booked a cabin at North South Holiday Park on the outskirts of Christchurch as they offered an airport shuttle service and it was nearby to pick up our campervan the following morning.
We literally arrived at North South Holiday Park and went straight to sleep, however the cabin was comfortable, facilities were clean, there was Wi-Fi available although slow (welcome to New Zealand), and although we didn’t have time to use it there was also a pool. We paid for NZ$72.00 for a double cabin for the night, but if you are looking for a budget campsite in Christchurch non-powered pitches start at only $17.
Campsite: North South Holiday Park – Christchurch
DAY 2: A DAY IN CHRISTCHURCH
It was a short ride from the holiday park to pick up Cathy the campervan from Travellers Autobarn. The staff were just as excited as us to get exploring New Zealand in a campervan. They explained how everything worked and gave us a few pointers and maps for our South Island road trip.
Parking in Christchurch
We then headed into Christchurch for day one of our South Island itinerary. We parked at the Botanical Gardens (There are two large public car parks – one at the Riccarton Avenue entrance and one at the Armagh Street entrance). It is free to park for up to 180 minutes which we felt was enough time for a wander round Christchurch.
Christchurch Botanical Gardens
We thoroughly enjoyed the Botanical gardens and photographing the famous Peacock fountain as well as the Canterbury Museum across the road which is free to enter. We found the quirky Fred and Myrtle’s Paua Shell House in the Canterbury museum so interesting and had no idea just how famous it was until we told others about our New Zealand South Island itinerary.
Christchurch Earthquake Memorial
Although completely unplanned, we arrived on the anniversary of the Christchurch 2011 earthquake. We felt a definite sorrowful atmosphere during our visit and couldn’t imagine the devastation it caused and the heartbreak of so many families as we visited the Canterbury Earthquake National Memorial. Although it was the 7th anniversary since the earthquake, repairs and construction works are still ongoing in Christchurch.
Quake City is an exhibit which includes some of the objects that have defined the Canterbury earthquakes including the spire from Christchurch Cathedral and the clocks from the railway station which is now demolished.
Campsite: South Brighton Holiday Park
As it was our first official night of our New Zealand South Island itinerary we chose a campsite near Christchurch until we felt more confident to venture further afield. South Brighton Holiday Park had great laundry and kitchen facilities and was a short walk to the beach. The cost was NZ$36.00 and you received 1GB of free Wi-Fi.
DAY 3: CHRISTCHURCH - AKAROA - TIMARU
The drive from Christchurch to Akaroa should take around 1 hour 20 minutes however we stopped to photograph so many nice lakes we wondered if we’d ever make it to Akaroa before dark. This is a vital tip for your South Island itinerary – never trust Google maps time estimation as there is so much to see & photograph, road trips ALWAYS take longer.
Akaroa is a small French town on the east of the South Island, situated on the spectacular Banks Peninsula in the heart of an ancient volcano. We wandered along the harbour, where there are numerous cruises and water activities to explore the volcanic landscape and enchanting wildlife of Akaroa.
Hector dolphins are unique to the waters of the South Island of New Zealand, with Akaroa Harbour and Banks Peninsula one of the best places to view these fascinating creatures!
The Giant’s House
If you have time to spare in your New Zealand South Island itinerary, we recommend the steep 5 minute walk from the harbour up the hill to the Giant’s House. It is an eclectic mix of mosaic and sculpture created by artist Josie Martin which will be like no other gallery and garden you’ve ever visited!
If your South Island itinerary is not on a budget, then you can even have a sleepover in the Giant’s House – prices start at NZ$400 per night!
After our morning in Akaroa we drove to Timaru for our first experience cooking in a campervan and to see the famous little penguins in the evening. Although they are said to be common, Timaru was the only place in our entire New Zealand South Island itinerary that we saw penguins in the wild and the volunteer was one of the kindest people we’ve met on our travels.
Not only does he spend his Friday & Saturday nights informing the public about the little fellas, he also set up a website with the best info on when to see penguins in Timaru depending on the season. We visited around 10pm and only saw a handful around this time but others said they even saw penguins waddling in Caroline Bay where we parked up for the night!
Campsite: Caroline Bay, Timaru
This was one of our favourite free campsites on the South Island as although it was essentially a car park with public toilets nearby it was a short walk to the Timaru penguins viewing point and beautiful Caroline Bay beach.
DAY 4: TIMARU - LAKE TEKAPO - TASMAN GLACIER NATIONAL PARK - LAKE PUKAKI
The Timaru penguin volunteer suggested we avoid the coast and instead cut inland visiting the stunning Lake Tekapo and Tasman Glacier National Park. On reflection, we are so grateful for this suggestion and sad to hear many skip this route in favour of sticking to the coast as this day was one of our highlights from our south island road trip.
Timaru to Lake Tekapo took around 1 hour 20 minutes, we then we stopped for the most scenic picnic we’ve ever had by the lake. Although we tried to capture just how amazing the view was in our cooking in a campervan video, you will have to see it to believe it.
Lake Tekapo is actually a UNESCO Dark Sky Reserve, so if you have time in your South Island itinerary, we would recommend camping here as it is one of the best star gazing spots in the entire world.
Tasman Glacier National Park
Following the volunteer’s suggestion, we then drove from Lake Tekapo to Tasman Glacier National Park (Tasman Lake) which again was around 1 hour and 20 minutes. A short and very windy 30-minute hike later we were met by the most incredible views of Tasman Glacier.
At one stage you would have also been able to visit the Blue Lakes at Tasman Glacier however, during our visit they were more of a dirty green. Although it was a short (and VERY windy) stop, it was a definite highlight of our NZ South Island itinerary and a favourite photo from our entire trip.
As if you haven’t had enough blue lakes for one day, let’s finish Day 4 of our New Zealand South Island itinerary with the most incredible blue lake we have ever seen – Lake Pukaki.
This was only a 35 minute drive from Tasman Glacier and we arrived late afternoon (Around 4pm) however as it is free to camp here the best spots were already taken so we advise arriving even earlier if you can.
Campsite: Lake Pukaki Reserve
As it’s free it is VERY busy and it was our first experience of a drop toilet. This means exactly that – no water, your “business” drops into a pit below. Terrifying on a first experience but believe us, by the end of this New Zealand South Island itinerary you will have forgotten what an ordinary toilet is like!
Please remember your camping etiquette when pitching up here, a giant motorhome parked right in front of our view and we witnessed a lot of poorly camped campervans with zero sense of personal space – the lake is 178 km² there’s enough view for everyone.
DAY 5: LAKE PUKAKI - OAMARU - MOERAKI
We continued our South Island road trip by returning to the coast, driving from Lake Pukaki to Oamaru which took around 1 hour and 55 minutes.
Oamaru – Steampunk HQ
Oamaru is one of the quirkiest towns we have ever visited as it is known as the world capital of Steampunk. The steampunk sub-culture was created in the 1980s by Sci-fi enthusiasts who through costume, sculpture and art clash the Victorian era with the future.
No visit to Oamaru is complete without a visit to Steampunk HQ where you are surrounded by outlandish inventions and interactive artworks. This article explains in more detail how the ordinary farming town of Oamaru became the steampunk Mecca and even a Guinness World Record breaker for the largest steampunk gathering ever.
Blue Penguin Colony
If you are just as penguin mad as us, Oamaru is home to a Blue penguin colony which head to their nests in an old stone quarry near the waterfront each evening and for the price of NZ$45.00 you can book a premium seat to view the waddling action. We skipped this however as during our New Zealand South Island road trip we’d already seen the little fellas for free in Timaru!
Wandering the Victorian precinct in Oamaru (around Harbour Street & Tyne Street) we found so many eclectic galleries (Grainstore Gallery was our favourite) vintage boutiques and quirky coffee shops that we so wished we had longer to explore. We did promise off the beaten track suggestions in this NZ South Island itinerary and Oamaru is a stop not to miss!
If you can, plan your visit here on a Sunday as it hosts the Oamaru farmer’s market which is a New Zealand South Island must see experience, however on a Monday is when most of these funky little shops and Café’s have a day off so bare this in mind!
Moeraki Boulders & Katiki Point
From Oamaru it was around a 30 minute drive to our stop for the evening – Moeraki. We spent the rest of the afternoon exploring the famous Moeraki boulders and then took the treacherous trek down to Katiki Point Lighthouse. If you have hired a campervan for your South Island road trip, we do not recommend taking it down this road as it is a bumpy dirt track which many hire companies forbid.
We were a little naughty and did it anyway because Katiki Point is said to be home to a penguin and seal colony however we saw only one lonely penguin in the far away distance, although did see very cute seals so it was worth being rebels and making the detour.
Campsite: Moeraki Boulders Holiday Park, Hampden
We pitched up here as after 2 nights of free campsites as we needed electricity and to empty the waste water etc. It was within walking distance to the Moeraki boulders and was only NZ$32.00 for the night. We paid an extra NZ$10.00 for 2GB of Wi-Fi so we could plan the next part of our New Zealand South Island itinerary.
DAY 6: MOERAKI - DUNEDIN - OTAGO PENINSULA - KAITANGATA
Moeraki to Dunedin took around 1 hour and if you are Scottish like us, then you are in for a treat. Dunedin is the Celtic name for Edinburgh and the similarities between the two cities are endless.
By the end of the 1850s around 12,000 Scots had emigrated to Dunedin and now the town even has a Robert Burns statue in the city centre. We were tempted to busk and crack out a few Burns poems standing next to it for a dollar or two!
Larnach Castle nearby, is also a treat for Scottish visitors as it is New Zealand’s only castle, so it is worth squeezing into your South Island itinerary.
Things to do in Dunedin
Day six of our South Island road trip was a busy one as there is so much to do in Dunedin, we felt it was the first time we’d been in a big city for so long.
We enjoyed visiting the Public Art Gallery (and using their free Wi-Fi), and discovered it was in fact the first public art gallery in New Zealand. We also recommend venturing up (or down) Baldwin Street – the steepest residential street in the world! A
Then we recommend visiting Signal Hill Lookout to admire the Otago Peninsula and the city in its full glory. You can walk to the look out or drive if you’re a lil lazy like us.
Finally, a trip to Dunedin would not be complete without taking a snap of the Railway Station which is New Zealand’s most photographed building.
Before we drove to Kaitangata for our campsite, we stopped at Sandfly Bay (Around 15km from Dunedin) for a very brisk walk as it was so windy we were scared we’d be whisked off the cliff. The windswept walk was worth it however, for the striking stormy views over the bay. Sandfly Bay is another spot on your South island road trip where you can find seals and penguins, so if the weather permits stick around to spot some.
It was an hour’s drive from Dunedin to Kaitangata. To be honest, there wasn’t much to do in Kaitangata and last year it was even reported the government were offering payment to families to move there, the campsite was great however.
Campsite: Kaitangata Riverside Motor Camp
There were two reasons we LOVED this campsite – pizza and WiFi. Two words anyone in a campervan loves to hear. The campsite had the friendliest staff who handmade large pizzas for NZ$15.00 which were a delicious break from our campervan cooking. We paid NZ$30.00 for a powered site, hot showers and FLUSH toilets.
They even gave us the site nearest reception as they explained it had the best Wifi – it turned out to be best WiFi we experiences from our entire South Island itinerary and we were so grateful to back up our photos so far.
DAY 7: KAITANGATA - THE CAITLINS - FORTROSE
Just 40 minutes down the road from Kaitangata is The Catlins. The Catlins are a must for any New Zealand South Island itinerary and especially for nature lovers. There are so many things to do in the Catlins that it takes forever to drive anywhere, because there are too many tempting trails, wildlife to be found and rugged landscapes to explore. Although we wish we had longer, this is what we got up to…
If you are limited on time in the Catlins, our top recommendation is Nugget Point as it was one of the most stunning stops our south island road trip. It is a 47 acre wildlife reserve with an easy walkway from the car park to the light house which only takes 20 minutes.
We could’ve spent hours watching the seals or if you head for Roaring Bay which is located between Kaka Point and Nugget Point (part of the same nature walk) it is home to Yellow-Eyed penguins which are often mistaken for ducks in the water. Unfortunately, we didn’t spot any but it may have been due to the time of year.
From Nugget Point we then attempted to drive to Jack’s Blowhole (45 minute drive) however the weather took a turn for the worse so in true Loz & Daz fashion we stopped and had coffee and cake in the van instead.
From Jack’s Blowhole it’s only a 20 minute drive to Purakaunui Falls Walk located in the heart of the Catlins Forest Park.
Suitably fuelled with coffee and cake, we braved the rain and enjoyed the 20 minute nature walk to the beautiful waterfalls. At 15 metres high, the waterfalls cascade down 3 tiers which was mesmerizing to witness after such heavy rain.
Purakaunui Falls are actually the most photographed New Zealand waterfall, so it is worth a stop here during your South island road trip.
What South Island itinerary would be complete without visiting the most Southern point on the island!? On route to our stop for the night, we visited Slope Point – the most Southern point of New Zealand.
We will warn, we had to walk through a field of sheep to get there and we were so grateful another couple were mad enough to brave the crazy windy weather as they were able to take our photo at the famous sign which marks distances to the South Pole and the Equator, noting Slope Point is roughly halfway between the two.
After a brisk chat to the sheep and very windswept we jumped back in Cathy and headed 30 minutes down the road to Fortrose for our campsite. As a tip however, on your way to and from Slope Point don’t forget to look for the windswept trees. Due to over a century of fierce winds from the Antarctica you will notice the trees appear bent over almost as if they’ve been blown inside out.
Campsite: Fortrose Township
If you’re looking for free campsites during your New Zealand South Island itinerary, we cannot recommend staying here enough. It is literally a field in front of the most beautiful beach and it doesn’t cost a penny!
Due to us faffing around speaking with sheep at Slope Point we didn’t arrive until nearer 7pm and we were lucky enough to get the last spot at the front although squeezed in at the very end. We recommend arriving around 4pm to secure the best views. It also had drop toilets, but who can complain when the view looked like this!
DAY 8: FORTROSE - BLUFF - ORETI BEACH - OREPUKI
We’d heard a lot about the town of Bluff however after the 45 minute drive from Fortrose, the town itself was a bit of an anti-climax. If you’re into seafood, Bluff Oysters are apparently incredibly famous however they’re not our cup of tea.
We hopped out for a quick photo at Stirling point as its apparently a must do for any South Island road trip. It is literally a sign post with a few signs, that marks the end of State Highway 1 which runs the entire length of New Zealand. We also took a few photos of the colourful houses in Bluff but apart from that, there was little to see.
We’d even read the town was not overly welcoming to campervans – another reason Campermate is on our best apps for backpackers as the reviews are very honest and give you little tips like this from other visitors campervanning round New Zealand.
We then headed to Oreti Beach which is unique in that you can actually drive on it. It is nicknamed the “coastal highway” as it’s 26km long and one of the only beaches in New Zealand that permits cars and motorbikes.
Unless of course you’re doing this NZ South Island road trip in a hired campervan (like us) in which case you’ll need take a walk on it instead as most rental policies forbid beach driving.
From Oreti beach to Orepuki it was around a 1 hours’ drive.
Campsite: Orepuki Tavern & Campground
We paid NZ$15.00 for an unpowered site which sounds expensive however the credit was actually put towards a bar tab instead.
The $15 bar credit was enough for 2 pints and an ice lolly each. The tavern also had Wi-Fi and the staff were very friendly. Showers were NZ$2.00 each and were timed on a meter.
DAY 9: OREPUKI - TE ANAU - MILFORD SOUND
Day nine of our NZ South Island itinerary was by far the most spectacular drive of all and a definite highlight from our time in New Zealand. In total from our campsite in Orepuki to Milford Sound it took around 3 hours.
Te Anau is known as the gateway to the Fiordlands and probably the last place you will have phone signal for the next 2/3 days. We stopped here for a few photos, to bid farewell to the internet for a while and to taste the incredible Miles Better Pies which are worth this South island road trip for alone.
If you have time spare, we would recommend a night or two here as not only is it beautiful, there were many things to do in Te Anau that we wished we had time for.
Te Anau to Milford Sound
After a whistle stop tour of Te Anau we were back on the road. After 45 minutes we stopped at the beautiful Mirror Lakes, which is a very easy yet rewarding walk and the perfect point to stretch your legs before continuing the drive.
The remaining drive to Milford Sound was one of the most beautiful roads in our entire South Island itinerary, if not our entire New Zealand road trip and it was absolute bliss to be cut off from the world – just us, Cathy and the most beautiful surroundings we have ever seen.
We loved it so much we dedicated a post to the day trip from Te Anau to Milford Sound that includes all the stops, highlights and a full review of our Milford Sound cruise.
Campsite: Milford Sound Lodge – Milford Sound
We decided to splurge for our accommodation here for 2 reasons:
- It is a once in a lifetime opportunity to camp on the shores of Milford Sound
- There is only one campsite so you literally have no option unless you want to have a very long drive before and after your Milford Sound Cruise
We purchased a special campervan package which included:
- A powered campsite
- An insanely good breakfast
- Our Milford Sound Cruise (including lunch onboard)
- All for a grand total of NZ$298.00 for 2 people.
However this has majorly gone up in price and now for the exact same package is NZ$418.00 for 2 people, but keep an eye out for promotional offers as we booked this towards the end of the peak season!
Our Te Anau to Milford Sound post covers in more detail why we would recommend this, alongside other Milford Sound tour options as well as other campsites that are free along the route.
DAYS 10 - 12: MILFORD SOUND TO QUEENSTOWN
Following our epic cruise, we drove from Milford Sound to Queenstown which took around 3 hours and 40 minutes (be warned, you will stop A LOT to take photos!)
We had a friend who lived in Queenstown so spent some time with her (she introduced us to Yonder, the best brunch in town.) And although Queenstown is referred to as the adrenaline capital of the world with endless opportunities to hike, paraglide, bungy jump and more, we participated in zero of the exciting things to do in Queenstown and instead drank a lot of wine instead. Shocker.
Round the Basin Wine Tour
Gibbston Valley outside Queenstown is home to numerous wineries that we couldn’t resist. We did choose a more challenging tour however and opted for a self-guided mountain bike tour (believe me, it got easier the more vineyards you visited haha).
It was one of the highlights from our entire South Island road trip. We used Around the Basin Tours, who would even pick up any bottles you purchased to allow you to keep cycling (or pushing) your bike round the trail.
Campsite: Queenstown Holiday Park & Motels Creeksyde
As we wanted to spend some time in Queenstown we stayed here for 3 nights. It was expensive, but it was a powered site in the centre of town with the funkiest toilets and showers we’ve ever seen! We also had a great, secluded spot with a picnic table next to us.
We also paid NZ$25.00 for unlimited Wi-Fi for the duration of our stay however, if you book an activity at reception they give you unlimited Wi-Fi for free.
DAY 13: QUEENSTOWN - WANAKA - LAKE HAWEA
After a couple of days in Queenstown we drove to Wanaka which took around 1 hour and 10 minutes. Out of all the places in our South Island itinerary, Wanaka is one of the places we could happily live permanently we loved it that much!
We had a very chilled day exploring the handful of shops, bars and had a picnic by beautiful Wanaka lake. It is here where you can photograph the famous Wanaka tree. (Search #thatwanakatree on Instagram, you’ll see what we mean!) PLEASE be a responsible traveller and do not attempt to climb the famous tree, or get a photo on it. Respect it from a distance.
Hike Roy’s Peak
This is our only regret from our South island roadtrip – not hiking Roy’s Peak. It is a 16km hike in total, that takes around 5 hours – unfortunately we had spent nearly all day in Wanaka wining and dining by the lake so a hike was out of the question.
The track starts at the Roys Peak car park which is on Mount Aspiring Road, but you must arrive early to get a parking spot. You can always start your walk early from Wanaka, which takes around 1.5 hours to the car park.
Note as well that Roy’s Peak track is closed from 1st October to November each year due to lambing season.
Campsite: Lake Hawea Hotel & Campsite
From one beautiful lake to another – we drove from Wanaka to Lake Hawea (around 17 minutes drive.)
We paid NZ$12.00 per person to camp here, which was a little expensive for an unpowered site but the views were so beautiful and the campsite so peacefully quiet that we didn’t think twice about paying that much.
They also offered bar meals for only NZ$12.00 and NZ$5.00 drink specials as well as Wi-Fi in some areas. Facilities were clean, showers & toilets were great and staff were very friendly.
To be honest, it was one of our favourite campsites from our entire South island itinerary as the views of the lake could be seen from our bed – it was insane to fall asleep/wake up to.
DAY 14: LAKE HAWEA TO FOX GLACIER
Fox Glacier was the next destination on our South Island itinerary. From Lake Hawea it was a long drive (nearly 4 hours) however we stopped at two stunning locations on the way which even in pouring rain looked amazing.
It took around 1 hour to drive from Wanaka to the Blue Pools. As the name describes, you wander through a stunning lush forest to find Makarora River’s striking sapphire pools.
The swing bridge above the pools is a thrilling experience and you can also walk down the pools – or even take a dip if you’re feeling brave.
Even though we visited in the pouring rain, the pools were still beautifully blue and best of all, incredibly quiet – we were the only people there which is very different scenario than during peak Summer.
Thunder Creek Falls
Although the Purakaunui Falls mentioned earlier are said to be the most photographed waterfalls in New Zealand, for us Thunder Creek Falls were the most impressive. They are located 15 minutes from the Blue Pools along HAAST Highway in Mt Aspiring National Park and are a definite worthwhile stop in your South island road trip.
They were particularly impressive during our visit due to the heavy rain and at 96m high they definitely sounded like thunder as they crashed into the waters below. The walk to the look out is also super easy and takes just 10 minutes – perfect quick photo stop as before you continue the drive to Fox Glacier.
Campsite: Fox Glacier Lodge, Fox Glacier
Although it was NZ$40.00 to camp here, we needed a powered site and wanted to be nearby the glacier and Lake Matheson as we had a busy day planned the next day.
It turned out to be an absolute hidden gem as the campsite owner took us all on a free walk through the rainforest in the dark to find glow worms. We felt like we were in a Disney film as they twinkled around us! This wasn’t a one off – the campsite runs these glow worm walks for free every evening at 9pm, making it one of the many reasons why it belongs on our best South Island campgrounds list.
DAY 15: LAKE MATHESON - FRANZ JOSEF GLACIER - HOKITIKA
Day 15 of your South island itinerary will need to start early if you want to beat the bus tours. We got up at sunrise and recommend you do too to photograph the stunning reflection of Mount Cook on Lake Matheson. If you leave it later, the sun gets too high so the reflections don’t work as well.
Our campsite was only 6km from Lake Matheson, another reason we’d recommend it if you’re camping on the South Island. It is a pleasant 2.6 km track round the lake that takes around 1.5 hours to go all the way round – the joy of starting early was that there were only a handful of other people when we were there.
As beautiful as the location was, we had a huge argument at Lake Matheson as we were both starving (travelling as a couple ain’t always straightforward). To make peace, we went for brunch at The Landing in Franz Josef and it was AMAZING – definitely stop here for an unforgettable start to your day/fix a hangry boyfriend/fuel your glacier hike.
Franz Josef Glacier
Franz Josef Glacier is the smaller of the two and the hike will take you around an hour and a half. There were some impressive waterfalls on the walk, although we weren’t particularly blown away by the glacier itself as you can’t see much from the safety barriers, we’ve heard a helicopter tour is the best way to view the glacier in its full glory!
From Franz Josef Glacier it was 1 hour and 40 minute drive to Hokitika. Hokitika is a sleepy, hippy town, worth squeezing into your South Island itinerary as it’s home to the best sunsets in New Zealand.
There are also many galleries, cafes, walks and wildlife in Hokitika but after our early start we had a chilled evening back at the van.
Campsite: Woodstock Domain, Ruatapu
Our campsite was essentially a field called Woodstock Domain (we did warn Hokitika was hippy). It was NZ$5.00 per person which you popped into an honesty box next to a pavilion style building where the *flush* toilets were.
Although the campsite was basic, we loved the fact there was a peacock which roamed around – just one of the many surprising highlights from our South Island road trip.
DAY 16: HOKITIKA TO LYFORD VIA ARTHUR'S PASS
You will need your camera charged for day 16 of this New Zealand South Island itinerary as you are in for a feast of natural wonders! Today was a big day of driving as we cut from the West Coast back over to the East (around 4.5 hours of driving) but it was the most stunning drive of our entire lives and there were a couple of stops we really recommend.
Like the Blue Pools you may see photos of Hokitika Gorge online and think “surely the water isn’t that blue” but it is! Our unfiltered photo below does not do this stunning place justice and it is definitely worth stopping by on your south island road trip.
It is around a 30 minute drive from from Hokitika to the Gorge. Then it is a short walk suitable for all ages, before reaching a swing bridge that offers incredible views over the blue waters.
Although you can swim in the gorge it can be incredibly fast after heavy rain so check it is safe before doing so.
Following Hokitika Gorge, you will then drive through the famous Arthur’s Pass where the views will blow you away. We did have to sing to wee Cathy the campervan to persuade her up the steep hills at parts but it was a drive we will never forget.
The road is referred to as the Great Alpine Highway 73 (or also known as West Coast Road) it climbs to more than 900m (hence the singing to our campervan) through Arthur’s Pass National Park. You’ll see shingle river beds on wine side, and dense forest on the other – be sure to watch out for the passing place where you can stop and capture this insane view.
Castle Hill Boulders
We nearly drove past Castle Hill Boulders until Loz shouted “stop the van, those rocks are huge” and she wasn’t wrong. They were insane, although it was a very busy stop so we were only there briefly for a photo or 10.
We later learned Castle Hill is earned it’s name from the early Europeans because the towering limestone boulders reminded them of old, run-down stone castle. We also discovered the front of Christchurch Cathedral in was made from limestone from Castle Hill.
The area around Castle Hill is of special cultural and historical significance to Ngai Tahu who named the region Kura Tawhiti. This translates to ‘the treasure from a distant land’ and once you visit, you will understand why this magical area deserves this name.
We then stopped at Springfield only 25 minutes down the road as we were hungry and bursting to pee. Not just because you can take a photo inside a giant donut. The donut was apparently gifted to the town to promote The Simpsons Movie. Then we headed to Lyford for the night to what turned out to be one of our favourite campsites from our entire New Zealand South Island itinerary.
Campsite: Mount Lyford Lodge, Lyford
As mentioned this turned out to be one of our favourite South Island campgrounds as the staff were so friendly and the lodge itself was incredible (turns out, it was built by a Scotsman so maybe we’re biased). This was a powered site and cost us NZ$30.00. The showers were the best we’d had so far and staff were so friendly even offering us to chill in the bar and use the Wi-Fi even if we weren’t having a drink there.
There was also kitchen above the bar which was open to campsite guests to cook which was also great. We really wished we could’ve stayed longer but time was running out in our New Zealand South Island road trip!
DAY 17: LYFORD - KAIKOURA - REEFTON - GREYMOUTH
The following morning it was only a 55 minute drive to Kaikoura. In the Maori language ‘kai’ means food, ‘koura’ means crayfish so this is heaven for seafood lovers as it is everywhere!
Sperm whales, fur seals and dolphins live permanently in the waters of Kaikoura so most tourists take a whale watching trip here or you can even swim with dolphins. We also headed up to Kaikoura Look Out for incredible views before heading back in the van to Reefton.
You may be questioning why we were heading back to the West Coast, but this was to continue our tour of the West and so we were be able to tick Arthur’s Pass off our bucket list.
Reefton is somewhat of a hidden gem from our South Island road trip, that you would otherwise drive through if you didn’t know about it. Please stop for coffee and cake at The Broadway Tearooms And Bakery (I think it has since changed names but it it is still renowned for it’s cake & coffee.) It was the BEST cheesecake I’ve ever had made with traditional New Zealand lolly.
The town itself is literally a couple of streets but so quirky and interesting we enjoyed a stroll and taking many photos.
From Reefton we headed to Greymouth where we were staying for the night before continuing up the West Coast.
Campsite: Central Park Camping, Greymouth
This was essentially a car park behind a petrol station however the staff were so friendly and after phoning ahead to reserve a space they even put an official sign on our campsite to ensure no one parked there before we arrived. It was NZ$25.00 for a powered site, NZ$2.00 for a shower and the Wi-Fi was free and unlimited.
DAY 18: GREYMOUTH TO GENTLE ANNIES
Day 18 of our South Island itinerary was a little more chilled. From Greymouth we headed along one of the most beautiful roads in New Zealand to the pancake Rocks – you’ll maybe guess from their appearance why they got that name.
Punakaiki’s pancake rocks and nearby blowholes are yet another amazing natural wonder that this New Zealand South Island road trip has to offer. We were fortunate to time our visit at high tide so could witness the blow holes blast waves high into the sky. Truly mesmerising to witness.
Denniston Dog – Westport
We’d worked up some serious appetite by the time we arrived in Westport so devoured a delicious meal at Denniston Dog. A funky little bar come restaurant that served local seafood as well as burgers etc. It is literally an unmissable stop in Westport – just look out for the vibrant bright yellow and red.
We are now going to let you in on a little secret, a camping ground called Gentle Annies. It is genuinely heaven on earth and like no other campsite we have ever been to – around a 40 minute drive from Westport.
Campsite: Gentle Annie’s Seaside Accommodation, Mokihinui
Not only do you get a homemade cookie on arrival if you book via the Campermate app, they also sell homemade pizza dough which you can bake in their huge stone pizza oven. You can chill on the comfortable sofas, enjoy a book by the fire or enjoy fresh barista coffee and home baked cakes like we did. Gentle Annie’s campsite was an unforgettable stay and we really hope you make time for a visit during your South Island road trip!
DAYS 19 & 20: GENTLE ANNIES - ST ARNAUD - KAITERITERI (ABEL TASMAN NATIONAL PARK)
As it’s coming to the end of our South Island itinerary, we had a few long drives ahead to squeeze in our final stops. We drove from Gentle Annies to St Arnaud where Lake Rotoiti is. Although Lake Rotoiti translates to “the small lake” you’ll discover it is actually huge – and super busy!
Some people were swimming in the lake and our stop unfortunately coincided with the Kiwi Experience bus so we had to wait a good half hour while they all took photos on the jetty and jumped in to the lake. Thankfully the incredible view from the Lake Rotoiti Jetty was worth the wait.
We then hopped back in the van and continued our South island road trip to Kaiteriteri. In total from Gentle Annie’s to here was around 4.5 hour drive. This sounds like a long time but there is so much to see and photograph time goes passed crazy quick.
We had finally reached Abel Tasman National Park – to us the cherry on top of the South Island itinerary cake. Kaiteriteri is a postcard perfect place, that regularly features in international round ups of the best beaches in the world. Once you visit, you’ll immediately understand why!
Abel Tasman National Park
You cannot complete your NZ South island itinerary without exploring the Abel Tasman National Park. Genuinely one of the most beautiful places we have ever been and exploring it by kayak was a hilarious yet unforgettable experience (you can read about that incident in our travel fails post ).
Our instructor even told us that it’s possible to view penguins and dolphins when kayaking but we were so focused on just not killing each other we didn’t have much time to wildlife watch.
Our kayak tour was around 2 hours and we visited the famous Split Apple Rock, had a wee wander on the beach then kayaked back before a well deserved fish & chips back in Kaiteriteri.
Campsite: Bethany Park, Kaiteriteri
We stayed here for 2 nights for a total of NZ$36.00 per night as the Abel Tasman National Park was just so beautiful – we would’ve happily stayed for longer. The campsite was within walking distance to the town and stunning beach.
Wi-Fi was really quick (for New Zealand) but cost NZ$5.00 for 5GB and although showers were NZ$0.50 for 3 minutes they did have speakers in them so you could sing along free of charge.
DAY 21: KAITERITERI - NELSON - BLENHEIM
We were sad to say bye to Kaiteriteri as we drove to Nelson which took around an hour. To be honest, Nelson was a sleepy town and we didn’t do very much, this guide explains more things to do in Nelson. We wandered round the Queens gardens and Suter art Gallery, then grabbed a coffee and headed to Blenheim which was a further 1.5 hours drive.
However, we (and likely you) may be glad of a more chilled day as the end of our South island road trip is so close, enjoy the last few hours of relaxation before the North Island itinerary begins!
Campsite: Woodbourne Tavern – Woodbourne
This would be a perfect campsite if you had time to visit Blenheim’s famous vineyards as it was literally within walking distance.
It worked on a quirky system in that, if you purchased a drink at the bar, they let you park overnight for free as the “campsite” was literally the tavern carpark.
They also served the hugest meal portions which we thoroughly enjoyed and staff were so friendly. Only slight negative, you were limited to around 200MB of free Wi-Fi and if you needed to pee late at night, the bar was closed. This meant you had to walk to the nearby public toilets but the walk didn’t bother us at all as it’s less than 5 minutes.
DAY 22: BLENHEIM TO PICTON
Congratulations if you’ve made it this far. We promise driving this New Zealand South island itinerary is far more fun than reading about it!
Before we headed to Picton for the ferry, we stopped in Blenheim for breakfast and it was INSANE. If you can, stop at Mrs Vercoes diner, it will not disappoint.
From monstrous milkshakes to pancake stacks, it was one of our favourite foodie stops from our South Island road trip. The waitress was so friendly and talkative, we could’ve stayed all day (though felt we’d gained two stone just from breakfast). If you are looking for things to do in Blenheim that don’t involve stuffing your face, this guide might help. As mentioned, most people stop here to indulge in the famous Blenheim vineyards but there is still much to explore.
We were so stuffed from Blenheim we were relieved it was only a 22 minute drive to Picton. We chilled for the rest of the day at the funkiest camp site (it even had an outdoor pool) and looked back on what an epic South Island road trip we’d had.
Campsite: Waikawa Bay Holiday Park
We used our kiwi discount keyring again here, our stay was NZ$34.00 for a powered site with free 100MB of Wi-Fi. You could pay NZ$5.00 for 10GB of Wi-Fi also. There was a solar heated outdoor pool and the quirkiest sculptures dotted around the campsite. It was also within walking distance to Picton port, so the perfect last campsite before your North Island road trip begins!
DAY 23: FERRY FROM PICTON TO WELLINGTON
We hope you have enjoyed every minute of this New Zealand South Island itinerary and found our suggestions useful. From waterfalls to wildlife, coasts to camping your South island road trip is guaranteed to be unforgettable and fingers crossed you are now headed to the North Island.