New Zealand is made for road trips. In fact, the South Island, in particular, is made for road trips because there is one major highway that loops the entire island. With nature at the core of the attractions of the Island, hiring a campervan is an absolute must in my opinion. I hired a 2 berth with my wife in May, and even though things got pretty chilly, I would not have done it any other way.
If you’re not sure what size campervan is right for you, check out this handy guide Campanda have put together.
We just loved the fact that when we’d had enough driving we could wait for a sign to the nearest campground and pull off. Or if we were rolling into town, we just found the closest RV park so we could use the facilities and recharge the batteries; both figuratively and literally.
Being a relatively small island with mountains in the middle surrounded by the coast (obviously), the New Zealand South Island boasts some pretty spectacular roads. I rarely saw more than single lanes, since much of the roadway snaked around mountains. It was a great novelty and very pretty, but I can imagine that would get pretty tiresome if you lived there.
As we drove, there was a constant theme all over the island. I kept thinking to myself that “this town was pretty unremarkable, but the drive in between points A and B was spectacular”. Not every town, obviously, but it happened frequently.
Here are 7 of my favourite driving days I had in my 3 weeks there.
Picton to Nelson
The road from Picton to Neilson is absolutely astonishing. It winds its way up through the mountains along the north coast and gives increasingly beautiful views of the Marlborough Sounds. For those with limited time or money, driving west from Picton along Queen Charlotte Drive in a campervan is an excellent introduction experience to the sounds.
There are walking tracks and various aquatic tours through the sounds but they were all expensive and time-consuming. We were keen to keep moving and having now driven this road I do not feel like I missed out seeing the beauty of the Marlborough Sounds.
Blenheim to Renwick
Blenheim and Renwick are both fairly unremarkable towns, but what lies in between is around 45 wineries, all enjoying the soil and sun that prime for growing sauvignon blanc grapes. If you’ve ever heard of the Marlborough sauvignon blanc, this is where it is from. As you approach the region you begin to see a small vineyard here and a slightly bigger one there. But when the bright yellow bushes (during autumn) flank your van on both sides, you know it’s time to pull over and start wine tasting.
Te Anau to Milford Sound
The drive to Milford is touted to be one of world standards. In fact, the drive itself is World Heritage Listed. To be honest, it doesn’t start to get really good until about 20 minutes before the Homer tunnel. The first hour it mostly farmland and rolling hills, and granted, this is very pretty. But you don’t get world heritage listed for having rolling farmland.
But as the hills fade away in your rear view mirror they are slowly replaced by mountains that shoot up right beside the road. And with mountains come rivers. Keep an eye out for good stopping locations by the river, which is filled with boulders large and small. This makes for very interesting white water flow patterns down the stream. Great to look at through a moving window but I would have loved to find a good spot for a tripod and long shutter the shit out of that bad boy.
Motueka to Golden Bay
The road out from Motueka was stunning, but nothing prepared us for the view and the ride that awaited us up Takaka Hill. To get out to Golden Bay you must cross this hill and at 792 metres above sea level is no easy feat. The road winds its way uphill steeply and sharply, but the lookouts that you can stop at on the way up are breathtaking and make it all worth it.
The way down the other side is much the same, but with a different view and despite the adventure, you are glad that after 25 kilometres of winding your way up and down the mountain that the road is straight again.
Comically, the speed limit up and down the hill is 100 km/h. That speed is ludicrous because I don’t think we topped 35km/h the entire length.
Westport to Punakaiki
The drive south from Westport is spectacular and if possible, make sure you do this drive in the day time. Highway 6 continues on right by the beaches. For the majority of the route you will have ocean and beaches to your west and extreme mountains on your East, so convince your travel partner to drive this leg and keep that camera handy.
The Haast Pass is another incredible drive. The road drives through a valley and essentially follows the Path of the Haast River. So you have enormous mountains on either side of you and the deeper you get into the pass, the bigger, more snow capped, and more beautiful these mountains get. To do anything but stare out the window in awe would be a sin.
Makaroa to Lake Hawea
This route is actually a direct continuation of the Haast Pass on Highway 6. But it was so different and so beautiful it 100% deserved its own section.
As we came out the other side of Haast Past we began to follow Boulder Creek. Highway 6 took the form of a riverside drive. The bright blue ‘creek’ in the foreground and the mountains of the Southern Alps in the background made for a very interesting drive. I was actually amazed at how blue the river was. Obviously more glacier water.
After finally turning away from Boulder Creek, we crested a hill and were again awestruck by a Lake Hawea. I am already beginning to see why they call this the Lake District. Lake Hawea was an instant camera grabber and thankfully some smart person had the foresight to put in a couple of lookouts along the drive because there would be a lot of accidents from people either gawking at the lake or trying to be a photographer and driver at the same time. In fact, back near Makaroa, I did see a sign that read ‘high level of accidents next 20km’. Well yep, that would seem about right.
New Zealand is an incredible country with natural beauty in all forms literally around every corner. This list could easily be doubled and the quality would remain because the landscapes on which most every road is built are just stunning.
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