South Island New Zealand For Christmas

For Christmas and New Years we headed to New Zealand for 12 days of fun-filled-camper-van-exploration of the South Island.  On December 22nd we boarded a Virgin Airlines plane for the relatively short hop across the Tasman Sea. After a mere 3 hours we landed in our 30th country and set off to enjoy our first stop – Christchurch.

Our hotel in Christchurch was surrounded by beautiful flower gardens and even a moat running through the gardens. We would enjoy the flower gardens later, as we wanted to check out Christchurch before it got too dark. Downtown Christchurch was a city in progress. In 2011 a 6.3 magnitude earthquake devastated the city.  Walking around the city center the signs of the destruction are still apparent 6 years later. However in the aftermath and rebuilding, the city is reinventing itself with numerous new buildings and public spaces. We strolled along the river, enjoying the public art and performances and had a wonderful dinner before heading back to hotel to relax.

The next day we headed back to the airport to pick up our camper-van from Spaceship Rentals. The van was a sleek Toyota minivan that had the rear seats removed to make room for storage bins, a refrigerator and a bed with a luxurious 4 inch thick mattress – much more comfort than our normal backpacking inflatable mats.  Before driving off in the aptly named, Bugs Bunny van, the rental company discovered that Todd had never gotten an Australian drivers license and he had to sign multiple waivers and acknowledgements that he could drive on the left-hand side of the road (Kelly of course had not been as stubborn as Todd and quickly flashed her Australian license to avoid the extra paper work!)

We loaded our clothes and gear into the van and left Christchurch behind us. We headed inland toward the mountains. After a winding drive through the mountains, we arrived at Lake Tekapo, where we would spend our first night in Bugs.  We checked in, parked the van and decided to stretch our legs with a nice uphill hike to an observatory that was perched on the mountains overlooking Lake Tekapo.  The hike up was steep and we were rewarded with sweeping views of the valley and lake. We scampered around on the top with the grazing sheep for a bit and then headed down to enjoy a hearty dinner of freeze dried chicken curry. Following dinner, we walked down to the lake shore and watched the setting sun glimmer across the water.  We spent a comfortable evening in the van; it was surprisingly roomy and we slept soundly even though we were surrounded by at least 50 other camper vans.

The next morning we showered, had a quick breakfast of oatmeal and coffee and headed off to Mt. Cook National Park.  Mt. Cook is the highest mountain in New Zealand at 3724 meters (12,217 feet). Once in the park area, we decided to hike out toward Mt. Cook through the Hooker Valley. The trail snaked along the valley floor crossing the river vía multiple suspension bridges. We hiked along, enjoying the rushing river and scenic vistas of the surrounding mountains. At the end of the hour-long hike we rewarded with a lake-front view of Cook Glacier with its namesake towering above. We climbed down to the lake and relaxed on the rocks to enjoy the view, while watching several ice flows that had broken off from the glacier and were floating around the lake. Following the rest along the glacier front, we hiked back to the park village and enjoyed fresh salmon on a pizza.


After lunch, we decided to hike up the valley and to a series of small ponds – the Red Tarns. It was an hour long climb with non-stop steps and switch-backs that left us out of breath and our legs burning. Once we reached the top, the views made the steep climb worth all the effort!  We could see the entire valley and park stretched out below us. We savoured our rewarding view and wandered around the ponds that got their names from a red seaweed like plant grew in the shallow pools giving the water a reddish tint.  The quick trip down was followed by a short 20 minute drive to our next campsite along Lake Pukaki.
It was another camper van and tent park with a communal kitchen; a setup that would become familiar to us over the next week.

We cooked dinner with a kitchen full full of strangers and then decided to walk down to the lake. Little did we know that the “short” stroll to the lake would mean that we would have to climb fence, navigate a sheep pasture, ramble through a jumble of rocks and all just to get to a two inch deep section of the lake.  After dipping our toes in water that barely covered our toes, we trekked back to our site and strung out our hammock for a bit of swaying and relaxing before crawling into our van for the night.

Today was a longer drive to Queenstown. It was more spectacular New Zealand scenery, driving through mountain range after mountain range.  When we reached the top of Lindis Pass, the mountains dropped to a broad valley covered with farms and sheep ranches.
We arrived in Queenstown and were in need of a break from the driving, so we parked and strolled around the town for a bit and got some lunch. Queenstown is a very touristy town with lots of shopping that is wedged between a ski resort and the beautiful Lake Wakatipu. It was drizzling rain, so we kept our driving break short and soon headed on to our home for the next two nights – Glenorchy.

The drive along Lake Wakatipu from Queenstown to Glenorchy was amazing. It was a winding road and around each curve was another picture perfect view of the lake and mountains. The rain had blown over, so we had a clear blue sky that was only outmatched by the sparking blue of the lake below us.  We arrived at the end of the lake where the Dart River flowed into the valley to form the Lake.  We checked in at our camper van park, Mrs. Woolly’s.

After checking out the standard communal kitchen, showers and laundry facilities, we decided to spend our Christmas Day driving the dirt road to Paradise (why not?).  We took a right at the only round-about in Glenorchy and headed toward pastures. After several kilometers of sheep and cattle, we reached Paradise. A sign, a few houses and scores of sheep and cattle greeted us – not quite the welcome to Paradise we were expecting!
We drove on a bit further just to see what was beyond Paradise and came to a low-water crossing. We decided that going beyond Paradise was not for us if it meant crossing through a river in our low-riding minivan; so we back-tracked to Glenorchy and enjoyed a delicious Christmas dinner of freeze dried Moroccan lamb and freeze dried apple pie followed by doing laundry in the communal facilities. The next morning was spent finishing laundry and calling our families to wish them a Merry Christmas (since the US is a day behind us).

Following family time we decided that a long hike through the mountains was next.
We drove to the other side of the lake, parked the mini van and headed up Glacier Burn. The hike started in the trees and we were surprised that it appeared to be a rain forest as there were ferns and moss everywhere. The trail was steep and it did not take us long to realize that we no longer had our Colorado hiking-stamina.  As we crossed above tree line we encountered a boulder strewn meadow with a creek cascading down creating multiple waterfalls. We relaxed in the meadow, filtered some water for drinking and snacked on a few granola bars.  After a bit more relaxation enjoying the view and sounds of the rushing water, we made the quick down hill hike and headed to the tiny village of Kinloch. We enjoyed a delicious lunch at the Kinloch Lodge and then headed back to Glenorchy for the evening.

The next day was to be a long driving day, so we got up early to back-track along the lake to Queenstown. Soon after Queenstown, we left the mountains and headed out across miles of foothills covered with ranches and farmland. We drove for about two hours through endless countryside dotted with sheep, cows and deer and reached Te Anau, where we stopped for a quick lunch break before heading on to Milford Sound.
The road to Milford Sound curved and twisted up and down the mountains making the driving very slow.

When we arrived in Milford Sound, the amazing scenery made the long drive worth the effort! The towering walls of the fjord and the waterfalls plummeting down made for quite a spectacular view.  We hiked around a bit, found a swing tied up from a tree over-looking the sound and relaxed while we enjoyed the views. We then caught the last touring boat of the day and spent the rest of the day cruising the sound listening to the tour guide talk about the formation of the sound and snapping dozens of pictures of the cliffs and waterfalls.

The next day we pulled the blinds on the camper van tight and slept in a bit as we had no plans until a late afternoon kayak trip on Milford Sound.  When we finally crawled out of the van, we wandered around the area, completed a few short hikes and then headed down to the water to gear up for the kayak excursion.  We were given very stylish striped long underwear, life vests, a spray skirt and paddles. After a quick refresher on how to handle a sea kayak, which included how to use the rudder pedals and how not to capsize, we were shuttled far out into the sound with our guide and began the paddle back.

Being on the water in the kayak was the absolute best way to experience the area. We were able to get right up to the cliff walls and even went under Stirling Falls!  About half way back, our tour guide rigged a sail and we got a break from the paddling and surfed the waves while we sailed along the quiet fjord. The 4 hour trip on the water just flew by and before we knew it, we were paddling back into the harbor as the sun was setting over the cliffs.

Following a great day of paddling, we were sad to put Milford Sound behind us and head back to Queenstown.  Since we were covering the same route, our plan was to make only one stop for a hour or two hike. We selected the Key Summit hike and were rewarded with a vigorous 1.5 hour hike to the top, followed by great views as we strolled through the mountain-top meadow.

When we finally arrived in Queenstown, we pulled into our crowded camper van park and set off to explore the town a bit more. The town was full of high end shopping and mobs of tourists, so we headed to the town park that was adjacent to Lake Wakatipu. We strolled through the park, enjoying the setting sun, before heading back to the crowded campsite where we pulled out our camp chairs and relaxed for the rest of the evening.

We woke up early and quickly ran through our routine of showering, coffee and packing up. We enjoyed the drive up and out of the valley and were soon at Lake Wanaka.
We stopped for lunch, strolled around the lake and saw the Wanaka tree – a solitary tree that was about 10 feet out in the lake. The land around the tree had slowly eroded away, leaving the tree stranded in the water; making for a very picturesque viewpoint.
After watching the ducks, kayakers and paddle boarders, we drove on toward the coast and our destination for the night – Haast.

It was a beautiful drive (as are all drives in New Zealand!) with waterfalls, fern trees and mountains. We stopped at one waterfall. In addition to the spectacular falls, there were hundreds of rock cairns stacked along the rocky river shore. The different piles of rock structures created an interesting sculpture garden at the base of the waterfall and as we walked around we felt like we were waking through an exhibit from a modern art museum.
The camper van park in Haast was pretty remote, so we walked about a mile to the nearest restaurant and after dinner we hurried back to the park to crawl inside the van just as the rain hit. We spent the night relaxing and reading in the stuffy van; staying dry and warm.
It was still raining the next morning, so we rushed through our routine, trying to stay as dry as possible and headed  out on a short drive along the coast. It rained for most of the drive and was still pouring as we pulled up to the Fox Glacier.

We donned our rain gear and hiked to the face of the glacier. As we walked along the trail, we noticed the signs showing how much the glacier had receded since the 1700s – more than a mile!  The trail wound through a rain forest; presenting quite a contrast to the snowy mountain and glacier in the distance. By the time we hiked to the end of the trail, we were so drenched that Kelly’s phone, that was in her rain jacket pocket, was ruined from the water.

After the hike, we drove to our campsite and did some much needed laundry and relaxed in the van as the rain continued to soak everything.  Since it was New Year’s eve, we decided to check out the town of Franz Josef and enjoy a dinner that was not served in a bag.  After a wonderful dinner, we strolled around the sleepy town of Franz Josef and then headed back to the camper van park and crawled into the van to stay dry and were both sound asleep long before midnight.

The next morning we woke to birds chirping and no rain!  As clouds were looming in the distance we hastily cooked breakfast and headed out to the Franz Josef glacier.
It was a long walk out to the glacier with plenty of water falls cascading down the surrounding mountains.  After the hike we checked out the local hot springs and relaxed in the hot waters. We splurged and paid for our own private hot tub and room – well worth it as it got us away from the crowds and we enjoyed the relaxing soak.

The next day we drove along the coast to a small town called Okarito and hiked along the shore to a overlook from which we could see miles and miles of empty ocean.
Before heading back to the camper van park, we went for a walk along the beach amongst the boulders and watched the sunset.  Rather than eating dinner in the camper van park, we stopped by the lake on the way back and set out our camp chairs and enjoyed the great views as we ate another delicious freeze dried meal.

The next day, we drove along the coast from small town to small town. After a couple of hours we turned inland to cross back over the mountains and return to Christchurch.
We drove up the winding mountain road and stopped at the top at Arthur’s Pass. We stretched our legs with a quick hike out to the Devil’s Punchbowl, which was a stunning waterfall that dropped over 100 meters.  We hopped back in the van and finished the short drive to Christchurch and our last night in the camper van. Our camping spot was close to the airport as we had an early flight. Since we were out of freeze dried food, we called an Uber and had them drive us to a close by restaurant that we found on Google Maps. The restaurant was in a golf club that was almost completely empty; we had the restaurant almost to ourselves, watching the sunset over the lake and fairways.  After dinner we headed back to the camper van and enjoyed a rare treat – a hot shower without a timer! Taking a shower with hot water for more than 2 minutes was heavenly!

The next day we dropped off our camper van and walked about 2 miles to the airport with our backpacks for our last hike and said a sad farewell to New Zealand. It was a great trip and exploring it via a camper van is definitely the best way to see this magnificent island.

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