We had rented a camper van through a website called Mighway, which is like Airbnb for camper vans; people use it to rent their personal campers when they are not using them. We could not pick up the camper van until 5pm, so after saying “goodbye” to Jess’s family, we went to a nearby coffee shop to do some planning. Since we only had five days, we wanted to give some thought to where we could go without spending the entire time driving. When we had a reasonable plan to go in a loop from Christchurch to the West Coast through Arthur’s Pass, past Franz Joseph Glacier, through Wanaka, and back to Christchurch, we left to meet Kim to pick up our camper.
When we met Kim he was super enthusiastic about our trip! He and his wife had traveled all over New Zealand for a year in the camper van they were renting to us. He advised us that it is almost always raining on the west coast of the South Island, but it is still beautiful. A quick glance at the weather forecast confirmed five days of rain in the West. He also advised that our original plan might be more driving than we wanted to do and suggested we consider staying on the east side of the mountains and exploring there. We could then always decide on the fly whether we wanted to go further, to Queenstown or Milford Sound, for example.
We took his recommendations, completed our van inspection, and we were on our way! We had a late start on the first day, so we aimed for a campground two hours southwest of Christchurch, stopping to pick up groceries on the way. The campground was very nice in a big clearing with wooded hills all around. When we pulled up, a gaggle of 12-year-old girls came running over to us and all started talking at once peppering us with questions. One of them was having a going away party, so there were exuberant pre-teens everywhere! They mostly left us alone while we made dinner and climbed into our van to sleep. Later in the evening, they were playing hide and seek in the dark, and one of them came up to our van thinking someone had hidden underneath. It was pretty alarming to have someone approaching our very small house on wheels in the dark, but Eric opened the door and gave the kid a stern look. He apologized and ran away. The next morning one of the girls came and knocked on our van door at 7:30am and ran away. That was also rather startling because we had been asleep. We got up, had breakfast, did a short hike, and got back on the road.
The next few days were filled with beautiful scenery, pretty walks, and unfortunately, quite a bit of rain. To make the best of each day, we looked at the weather forecast and woke up early if it was supposed to be clear and drove when it was supposed to be raining. Despite the iffy conditions, we managed to do a hike almost every day, and had some truly stupendous views. On our second day, we got to Lake Tekapo and saw the most spectacular field of lupines. The wind was insane, so the lupines were blowing like crazy. We walked through the lupines finding flowers of all different colors and enjoying the picturesque scenery with lake and mountains in the background.
The highlight of the third day was waking up just past dawn to hike to the Mueller Glacier moraine wall where we could see Mount Sefton and Aoraki/Mount Cook, the highest mountain in New Zealand. Then we made and ate breakfast while enjoying spectacular views of Mount Sefton. We were driving away from the Mount Cook area when we saw a sign to the Tasman Glacier and Blue Lakes and decided to turn off. There we had pretty views of the Blue Lakes which are now green because the glacial ice has receded too much to fill them and they are now replenished with rain water. We could also see the Tasman Glacier in the distance.
On our third full day, we decided we had enough time to drive a little further than originally planned to see Queenstown and explore the Glenorchy to Queenstown Drive which is allegedly rated one of the top drives in the world. It added a few extra hours of driving, but it was pretty great scenery. Camping that night was funny because clearly everyone had the same idea. We were using an app called WikiCamper to find spots that were free to park for the night, and when we pulled in, the spot was seriously crowded! It was already late though, and raining pretty hard, so we fixed ourselves a cold supper, watched a TV show, and went straight to bed.
New Zealand has gotten pretty strict about camper van requirements. There are some sites where in order to park overnight, your van has to be certified as Self-Contained, which basically means you have a bathroom on board. When Kim showed us the camper van, he did show us that we had a portable toilet stowed away under the seat, but he insisted over and over “you won’t use it, you don’t want to use it” He found a place to store the toilet just so that his van could get the Self-Contained sticker and be allowed as much freedom as possible.
Our favorite campsite was the Lindis Pass Historic Hotel Campsite where we stayed on the third night. It was down a 4-mile gravel path that had cows grazing next to it. When we started driving down the road, one calf would not get off the road and insisted in running in front of us for quite a while. We got a bit turned around at one fork in the road and almost ended up on a farm but eventually figured out where the campground was. The campground is a beautiful field in front of the Lindis Pass Historic Hotel which dates to the first gold rush of 1861. It was initially set up as a store and then converted into a hotel in 1873. The building served as a hotel, general store, post office and school for seventy years before being abandoned in 1951. When we first arrived there was a single tent set up but no indication anyone else was staying there. Given how far removed the campsite was from the road, and the fact that there was no cell phone service, Jess found the tent a bit unnerving. It was raining, so we cooked a quick dinner under cover of the van’s rear door and crawled inside the van to hide.
A few hours later, a car pulled up and four young people hopped out. They inspected their tent and started freaking out. It turns out there were two tents there, but one of them had collapsed in the wind and rain and was completely flooded! They picked up their tent and carried it into one of the ruined buildings where the roof was still intact, lit a fire inside, and spent the night there instead. We think that was probably not technically allowed, but we might have done something similar in their shoes. A few other campers showed up and we enjoyed a very quiet night in the van. The next morning when we tried to drive out on the gravel road, it was very muddy and we had a hard time getting up a hill right outside the ruins. The van could not get any traction until Eric drove on a patch of nearby grass and we were finally on our way out.
Some of the highlights of the trip were unrelated to the views. On the fourth day, we decided to take a different way back and stumbled upon the Cardrona Distillery with a free tasting and some truly exceptional spirits. The founder of the distillery made some money from farming and decided to pursue her dream of making an internationally recognized New Zealand single malt whisky. She is well on her way with a delicious young whisky and some very interesting gin, vodka, and liqueurs. Another day we were driving on our way up to Mount Cook when we came across a pair of colorful ducks and some super cute ducklings. When we got to Mount Cook and started hiking, there were tons of hares hopping around. It was pretty fun to see this wildlife so close. Also check out this amazing thistle!
Like on our camper van adventure in Chile, it would not be an adventure without a small worry that we might be stranded. On our way to the Lindis Pass Historic Hotel campsite, Eric noticed that we were low on gas. He did not think we would make it past the Lindis Pass on the gas we had left, so we needed to stop at a gas station. Jess could see one marked on the WikiCamper app coming up before the Lindis Pass, so we headed there. It was a 24-hour gas station, so it was unmanned, and the machine would not accept any of our credit cards or debit cards. It kept saying it needed a pin, which we would have happily entered if it had ever asked, but it kept saying the transaction was declined because we had not entered a pin. We were now too low on gas to make it to another gas station, which put us in the funny position of being stranded at a gas station without gas! Luckily, a man stopped to use the public toilet, and we were able to get him to pay for the gas with his card in exchange for cash – another good reason to have some cash on hand!
As we were stopping to get gas before dropping the camper van back with Kim on the very last day, Eric received an exciting email. He had been offered the job he had interviewed for in the Korean jjimjilbang what feels like eons ago. Of all the options he was considering, it was definitely the front runner, so he was thrilled!
While drinking hot cocoa and playing cribbage in the van next to a stunning mountain lake, we commented that we would definitely miss the peace and beauty of #vanlife in Southern New Zealand. Not everything about van life was totally perfect, however. After five days we were ready to do something besides driving. Ironically, even though we were ready to give up our van, we think it might be because we did not have enough time. Five days is not long enough to really settle in to a routine, and it is short enough that a rainy stretch can really dampen your spirits. If we had had more time, we might have gotten better about organization, so keeping the van tidy would not have felt like a chore, and we might not have been so stressed about trying to see as much as we could while it was raining.
All in all, we would highly recommend renting a van to explore New Zealand, and we would even suggest five days is worth it if that is all the time you have. Embracing freedom to choose is part of van life and the path we took was nothing like what we had originally intended. All our careful planning before we picked up the van pretty much went out the window as soon as we had it, but it was still an awesome experience. For now, it is time to say goodbye to New Zealand and move on to our last continent, Australia!