After taking off from Kara and Ross’s place we set out on the open road towards Wanaka, located in the south of the South Island. As we soon found out, post-Christmas camping is even more popular than pre-Christmas camping. Highways are very busy, restaurants are full, and campsites are a nightmare.
Day 24-25 – Wanaka – Wa-NAH-ka or Wana-ka
On our first night in Wanaka, we simply hung out by the beach. They have a really nice set up there with a ton of free parking and beautiful scenery. We pulled Shitty up just feet from the beach and set up our beach towels. The water here is that postcard perfect blue. It’s so clear you can see the rocks at the bottom. As we mentioned, it’s peak tourist season, so finding a campsite wasn’t easy. For the first time we resorted to Freedom Camping. We ended up at Diamond Lake, where there was a cool hike and a drop toilet. Full disclosure – it is illegal to Freedom Camp without a certified self-contained vehicle. You risk a $200 fine if you are not ‘self-contained‘. This means you need an operating toilet and a holding tank for waste and grey water. Freedom Camping is pretty controversial in NZ, and we can see why. There are many people who travel NZ, foreigners and Kiwis alike, and sometimes people aren’t as respectful as they should be. As people who do back-country camping back home, we understand the steps you need to take to ensure you leave no trace. Then again, camping in NZ can be really expensive. By forbidding freedom camping, it forces people to pay around $20 CAD pp/night for a campsite. We see both sides of this coin, but at the end of the day we hope people will tour as responsibly as they can wherever they go. Ross had lent us a portable toilet just in case someone came around asking questions about our set up. Pretty sure we would’ve still received a fine though. There were a ton of campervans like ours, who would take the risk anyway. Either way we are not condoning it, but we did stay at one site for free for two nights.
Day 26 – Queenstown – “Queenstown, Anything To Try and Make You Shit Your Pants”
After two beautiful beach days in Wanaka, we headed to Queenstown. Ross suggested we stop in at the Cardrona Hotel on our way. We’re glad he did because this is one cool hotel/bar. We grabbed a quick beverage and admired the beautiful landscape, decor, and drooled over the plates going by us. After our refreshments we made our way to Queenstown. First of all, the route we came in on was so steep and curvy! We were both really glad Kik had his hands on the wheel. Queenstown is pretty much stimulus overload. There are so many adventure/activity options every which way you look. We wanted to check out Fear Factory, which is a haunted house…but Courtney, Kara and Ross’s daughter, told us someone jumps out at you before you ever get your tickets. Neither of us were brave enough to go in the front door. Queenstown is a really cool city and one we want to go back to. Unfortunately, for two long-term travelers nearing the end of their monthly budget, this one wasn’t in the cards for us. We left the city early and headed to our DOC campsite at Moke Lake ($26/night for an non-powered site). This was a very scenic site and we would recommend it. The campground offers bathrooms, a basic kitchen (sinks only), trails, and a beautiful lake surrounded by mountains.
Day 27 – 28 – Fiordland – A Thing of Beauty
Finally, we were heading out to Milford Sound. This is something we had debated doing because it’s a long haul to get there, but we would SO recommend it! We got a 2 for 1 deal for a 2-hour cruise through the fiord + BBQ dinner with a company called Go Orange. Don’t know what a fiord is? Wikipedia to the rescue! Anyway, it was spectacular! We saw dolphins, seals, waterfalls, and picture perfect sites at every turn. We had the last cruise of the day at 5:15PM, so we had to hightail it out of there as there really isn’t anywhere to stay in Milford Sound. There are a few DOC campsites about an hours drive out of the area. We tried to drive as far as possible before it got too dark and eventually settled in at Henry Creek Campsite. For $26 CAD/night, it just wasn’t worth it. The campground offered very little and you’d be lucky to find a spot along the Lake.
The following morning, we continued our drive back towards Christchurch but started to see heavy clouds roll in. Around Lake Tekapo it started to look rather eerie, almost like a slow-motion avalanche over the mountain range. Struggling to keep Shitty on the road due to the high winds, Clair could hear her mother in her head telling her to turn the “eff” around and stay in the very touristy, ritzy, and expensive town of Lake Tekapo. So…we did! We caught our breath at the local bar (and paid $12 each for a cider) to calm our nerves and then checked into the Lake Tekapo Holiday Park. It would probably be a nice campsite if it wasn’t totally jam-packed but it was really too expensive for what you got ($38 CAD/night for a non-powered site). Either way, Clair was determined to not go any farther that night.
Day 29 – Ashley Gorge – Ringing In 2017!
After waiting out the storm, we high-tailed it back up towards Christchurch to ring in NYE (in the future) with Ross, Kara, and Courtney at Ashley Gorge Holiday Park. We got their just in time to join them for more jet boating. When we returned to the campsite we met up with a group of their friends. What a wild night! Clair can never drink Rosé again (until next time).
This is where things started to get a little tiring for us. As we’ve mentioned, it’s peak tourist season. So when we booked our ferry tickets (about 6 weeks ago) the only time that was available for return was 2AM on January 2. Waking up the next morning and having a 7-hour drive up to Picton to catch our overnight ferry back to the north island was not a great idea. This is not something we recommend to anyone!
We wouldn’t change our route through NZ in any way, but full disclosure we felt more rushed and got more tired through the south island. If it wasn’t for Ross and Kara taking such good care of us, we’re not sure it would have been as enjoyable. The South Island requires longer driving days and we wished we could’ve spent more time at each site but with our ferry and the need to return Shitty on time we had to keep up our pace. If we could go back in time, we would give ourselves more days to tour the South in order to decrease our daily driving to 3-4 hours. Remember, the distances and level of attention needed to drive here compared to back home are much different. That being said, as long as you keep your eyes open and watch the signage you should be good to go!
PS. They also have one-way bridges here, which is really weird. It’s very important to understand who gives way, so be familiar with the road signs before heading out.
PPS. They very rarely have stop signs or traffic lights, yields and roundabouts all the way!