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Driving New Zealand: Three Week Tour

New Zealand Self Driving Tour 

Get ready for the road trip of a lifetime! Driving New Zealand’s 268,680 km², or at least a portion of it, is the best way to get a feel for the diversity of this unique country. From gentle rolling farmland and beautiful beaches to steel grey peaks covered with ever-changing glaciers, New Zealand has a wide array of ecosystems in a decently compact, easy-to-access area. You could easily spend two months or more exploring the country, however, most people have significantly less time. Here’s how to see most of what New Zealand has to offer in a little over 20 days.

A few tips:

– Start on the North Island, if you traverse the South Island first you’ll most likely be disappointed in the North

– Nearly every tourist attraction on the North Island has an entrance fee so be prepared to pay up

– Plan to spend most of your budget on gas

– Freedom Camping is allowed most places, and it’s much easier on the South Island, but make sure your camper is labeled as ‘Self Contained’ or you could face a big fine if caught outside of a camp ground

North Island:

Day One: Our starting point is Auckland, NZ. Pick up camper van and drive North along Highway One to Bay of Islands. You will have to pay a toll to stay on the Interstate or you can follow signs for the non-toll/scenic drive.

Night one: Find a place to freedom camp or pay to stay at the Top Ten Holiday Park in Paihi ($38.00 for two people). The park offers unlimited free internet, which is shut off at 10am check out time. It sits on the water and offers all facilities (bathroom, showers, kitchen, etc.)

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Bay of Islands, New Zealand

Day Two: Explore the Bay of Islands. Information on what to do on a budget here.

Night Two: Leave the Bay of Islands mid-afternoon and drive south to the Waipu Caves. It will be a right hand turn onto a gravel road leading about 13 kilometers west. Freedom camp at the base of the Wiapu caves just beware of the cattle across the road – the constant mooing can keep you up at night!

Day Three: Wake up early to explore the caves. They sit only 25 meters from the entrance gate, which you will have to hop over. Just because the gate is closed – doesn’t mean the caves are; in fact, it’s closed to prevent sheep and cattle from escaping. When you enter the dark, damp caves ensure you have both sturdy shoes and a flashlight. As you escape the light from the entrance, you’ll see the dim, iridescent light of the glowworms clinging to the roof of the cave. If you’re up for a challenge follow the orange triangle through the woods and into the open pastures for the 1.5 hour Waipu Caves Hike.

Drive south for the afternoon and spend the rest of the day and evening exploring Auckland. Find out what to do for free here.

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Downtown Auckland, New Zealand

Night Three: After sunset at the wharf, climb back in the camper and head south. We made it near Hamilton and followed signs for one of the big hiking trails there to freedom camp at the base. It was quite a ways off the main road near the only bed and breakfast in the area, and a group of young teens had already set up camp there before we arrived. If you have the extra cash – just stay in a camper park tonight or find another pull out for freedom camping when you’re tired of driving.

Day Four: Wake up and continue on to the Waitomo Glowworm Caves. Spend the mid-morning and afternoon exploring the caves. For more information on options and prices click here.

Night Four: Continue your drive to Rotorua. We paid for a Top Ten Holiday park here, but there is great camping near Blue and Green lakes including a cheap, basic Department of Conservation Site, which we couldn’t seem to find, or if you’re lucky, you can find a hidden pull out to freedom camp.

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Waimangu Volcanic Valley, New Zealand

Day Five: Wake up early and begin the day exploring the Rotorua area including Wai-O-Tapu and Waimangu Volcanic Valley. If you make it to Wai-O-Tapu before 10am, you can catch the Lady Knox Geyser “erupting”. If you’ve seen some of the world’s great geysers like Old Faithful, Lady Knox will be a huge disappointment, but it’s still something fun to see. For more on the walks through both parks as well as pricing, click here.

Night Five: Drive south to Lake Taupo and spend the night in the city along the lakefront for FREE! There is a city parking lot between the park and the lake to the right of the main road that allows 48 hours of freedom camping for self contained campers. Although it’s not a secluded paradise in the wilderness, it’s a great spot offering lake views, toilets in the nearby park and there are wonderful cafes and restaurants just steps away. The downside is the nearby bars blast loud music until about midnight – so pack your ear plugs for this one!

Day Six: Spend the morning exploring Taupo, fishing on the lake, parasailing, biking etc. or just relax in a cafe and soak up free internet – which is exactly what we did. As afternoon sets in, head farther south to Tongariro National Park. Stop by the visitors center to get information on hikes in the area including the Tongariro Alpine crossing. This is a beautiful, secluded area where you may finally feel you’ve reached a true outdoor paradise, which is surprisingly harder to come by on the North Island.

Night Six: We pulled down the main road running through park and found a great pullout behind a hill where we freedom camped for the night – although the visitors center will tell you there is no freedom camping allowed inside the park. If you are worried – there is a large Department of Conservation holiday park just up the road to the right from the visitors center.

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Tongariro Alpine Crossing, New Zealand

Day Seven: If you plan to do the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, a grueling yet beautiful 24km trek alongside volcanos and beautiful lakes, you need to have your transportation back to your starting point already secured – you do that at the visitors center the day before. The second half of the hike was closed when we made the trek, so we were able to return along the same path and end back at our camper van without transportation from the end of the hike back to the beginning. For more on the Tongariro Alpine Crossing click here. If you’re not up for a challenge, spend your morning exploring the shorter day hikes in the area or continue on your journey.

Night Seven: If you’re willing to push yourselves head toward Napier after tackling the crossing. If you started your trek around sunrise, you should be finished by 2:30 or so (about 7 hours to complete), and you have time to make the drive to Napier. The back way is a horribly windy and narrow roadway that rolls on forever. In fact it took us 4 hours. It may be best to return to Taupo and take the main highway to Napier – the route is up to you! After such a long climb and drive, you’ll be ready for a little “luxury” so splurge a bit and stay in a holiday park within Napier. We stayed at a FamilyPark near the Napier airport and were not impressed with the services there – after paying for the park, we had to pay for hot showers.

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Wine Country in Napier & Hastings, New Zealand

Day Eight: You’ll wake up sore and tired from conquering the Alpine Crossing so use today to sip, swirl and relax! Napier offers a great wine trail and most wineries are open for free tastings. For more on New Zealand’s wine trail and our favorite vineyards around Napier click here. Napier itself is a beautiful town rich with art deco design. You’ll feel like you’ve stepped back in time walking through the town center and along the beautiful waterfront. The remainder of the day is a decently long drive to Wellington, or if you would like you can scratch off one of the extra days in Wellington and spend it wining and dining around Hastings/Napier. If you do decide to move on, don’t drink too much because you have three to four hours of driving ahead of you.

Night Eight: Wellington is tricky for campers and not necessarily camper van friendly. There are extremely limited options including paying $50.00/night to stay in a glorified parking lot without access to a dump site or water refill. There are showers, toilets and of course an electric plug-in, but it seems the city holds a monopoly here. If you are looking to risk it a bit, try freedom camping outside of town at Shelly Bay – it’s difficult to find and the second night we tried to stay here a group of teens taunted us by flashing their lights and fishtailing around the pullout.

Day Nine: Spend the day exploring Wellington. It’s a neat capital city where old architecture collides with modern sky scrapers. Try taking a free tour of parliament, a $4.00 cable car ride up the hill to the free botanical gardens and make sure you leave plenty to time to explore the Te Papa Museum – it’s fascinating and FREE!

Night Nine: This is your last night on the South Island – if you’re catching the morning Interislander Ferry, it’s best to cough up the $50.00 and stay at the city’s camper park, which is conveniently located near the dock. You can book the Interislander Ferry online ahead of time – it’s decently cheaper than the Bluebridge ferry.

Day Ten: Wake up and get in line for the ferry 45 minutes before departure. You’ll drive your camper into the bowels of the ship and retreat upstairs where there are numerous cafes and comfy seats as well as a theatre and children’s play area. The trip takes about three hours, and you’ll disembark at Picton near the beautiful Marlborough Sounds. We stopped and ate lunch along the bay in Picton before heading toward Kenepuru, but if you’d like to spend a little more time in the quaint town, there are a variety of water sports available. Next, make your way along Queen Charlotte Drive to the turn off (right hand side) for Kenepuru Sounds. The drive can be done in 30 or so minutes or much longer, but it’s winding and narrow as it follows the Queen Charlotte hiking track through the beautiful sounds. A large sign at the turn off to the roadway details the services and free camping found inside. Note: there is no gas so make sure your tank is full before you set off to explore.

SOUTH ISLAND

Night Ten: Freedom camping is allowed at several pullouts along the way, but to be honest the best is the very first pullout about 10 or 15 minutes into the drive on your left. Signs encouraging free camping for self contained campers mark the pullout, which overlooks the beautiful sounds. We pulled in in the early afternoon and spend the day lounging alongside the water and relaxing.

Day Eleven: Return to Queen Charlotte Drive and continue on through Havelock, which is where you’ll pick up Hwy. 6 to Nelson. If you want to extend a day or swap time with somewhere else on the trip – now is the place. You can use the time to explore Abel Tasman National park (New Zealand’s smallest park), which we skipped. It’s accessible only by boat, which means you’ll have to pay to get there, but it’s supposed to be amazingly beautiful. Nelson also has beaches and great markets (Saturday market). If you don’t stop, continue through Nelson to Murchison along the beautiful Buller Gorge. This is where whitewater enthusiasts revel in great thrills and spills. Continue on Hwy. 6 until the T, where you’ll turn right on 67A toward Westport. Follow the signs to Cape Foulwind.

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Cape Foulwind, New Zealand

Night Eleven: Freedom camp outside the Cape Foulwind parking lot (make sure you are not inside the lot as you’ll be fined). Just outside the main parking lot there are gravel pullouts to the right and left. We camped, along with several others, in the pullout near the top of a trail winding down toward the water and the cliffs. Police patrol the area, which is great, and don’t bother the campers as long as you are not inside the Cape Foulwind parking lot.

Day Twelve: Spend the morning exploring Cape Foulwind and the amazing seal colony. You can hike several kilometers from where you’re parked or you can drive to Tauranga Bay where it’s a short walk along the path to the seal colony. You’ll be able to watch them play and sunbathe from a viewing platform above the colony. When you’ve had your fill hop back in your camper and continue south on Hwy. 6 toward Franz Joseph Glacier. On the way, you’ll want to stop at Punakaiki Pancake Rocks and Blowholes. A simple and short 20 minute walk leads you through the amazing rock formations and blow holes. They formed 30 million years ago from shells and bone fragments and have been shaped over time. Nearby is Paparoa National Park, which offers great hiking, beaches and caves including the Punakaiki Cavern. Continue on to Franz Joseph.

Night Twelve: You can freedom camp outside of the town or relax a bit and stay at the Rainforest Park for $39.00 (two people). It’s a great place with a spa and wonderful facilities including wifi. If you would like to do a guided tour of the Franz Joseph Glacier tomorrow – go to the i site and book with one of two companies in advance or make a plan to explore from the base of the glacier on your own. For more on how to explore the glacier and the tours offered click here.

Day Thirteen: Meet for your organized tour or explore the paths around Franz Joseph on your own. Afterward, drive down Hwy. 6 to Fox Glacier to explore there. If you’re exploring on your own, even if you have a morning tour organized at Franz Joseph, you have ample time to see both glaciers in one day. To catch a beautiful sunset, follow the signs from Fox to Lake Matheson and continue past the lake..following the signs to Gillespies Beach.

Night Thirteen: Enjoy one of the most beautiful sunsets in New Zealand while enjoying the free camper van parking and tent spaces with long-drop restrooms, but do try to get there a tad early as it can fill up quickly. Explore the round rock beaches and explore the rusted, old mining equipment scattered along some of the trails.  If you’re lucky, you’ll see fur seals stretched out along the rocky beach.

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Sunset at Gillespies Beach, New Zealand

Day Fourteen: Follow the road back to Lake Matheson to enjoy the incredible reflections of Mt. Cook in the murky waters of the lake.  The earlier the better as crowds begin to arrive mid-morning and clouds can easily shroud the mountain and your view during the afternoon! After the short and easy 1.5km hike around the lake, continue south along Highway 6 towards Queenstown. Along the way you’ll have plenty of opportunities to detour and enjoy the beautiful views and snap a few photos of Mt. Aspiring National Park, Lake Hawea, and Lake Wanaka.

Night Fourteen: After a long day of hiking and, to be honest, more driving, visit the quaint mountain town of Wanaka.  It’s a great place to grab a bite to eat or a beer at some very lodge-like apres ski places.  When your finished, continue heading south toward Queenstown.  Before you reach the city, find a beautiful spot that suits you to freedom camp along Lake Dunston. There is a rather large pullout filled with some more permanent, funky camper vans, but if you’re looking for privacy, there are some great pullouts just past the funky campers.

Day Fifteen: Wake up and head into beautiful Queenstown.  It’s considered the adrenaline junky capital of New Zealand and offers everything from jet boats to bunji jumping and even a chance to luge down the mountain.  The city is filled with cute boutiques or if you’re looking to lose a little cash elsewhere – check out one of a couple small casinos near the waterfront in town.  While you’re in Queenstown, find a place with free wifi (both Starbucks and McDonald’s are located downtown), and book your cruise for Milford Sound or you can wait and book it once you arrive at the marina. When you’re ready, begin the breathtaking drive to Milford Sound.

Night Fifteen: When you reach Lake Te Anau, you can dump and refill water for free at a park just before the Lake Te Anau marina.  If you need to stock up on food or supplies you can do so here as well as your options are limited as you head into Fiordland National Park.  Between Lake Te Anau and Milford Sound there are numerous DOC sites each costing $6.00 per person for an overnight stay.  There is no freedom camping within Fiordland National Park.

Day Sixteen: Continue your drive to Milford Sound.  Ensure you leave plenty of time as the road is narrow and windy, but not more so than other places you’ve already been!  You will want to stop for dozens of pictures as this is one of the most beautiful drives in New Zealand.  Keep in mind many of the cruises through the sound leave in the morning, so plan your schedule accordingly.  Milford provides parking specifically for camper vans, but no free overnight parking is allowed so you will need to return to a DOC site for the evening.  Enjoy the cruise and the drive there and back – it’s truly spectacular!

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The Drive to Milford Sound, Ne Zealand

Night Sixteen: After the cruise, take in some more views as you drive out of Fiordland National Park. The next destination is Dunedin, which is over four hours away, so you’ll probably want to spend another night at one of the DOC sites before you get back to Te Anau as they don’t allow freedom camping in the city limits.

Day Seventeen: Try to get around early as you’ll have a long drive ahead of you if you want to make it over to Dunedin (4.5 hours). We decided to skip Invercargill which is the southern tip of New Zealand and go straight to Dunedin instead. Dunedin is the gateway to the Otago Peninsula and the many animals who call it home. Here you can take your chances at penguin spotting, seal watching, or visit the Royal Albatross Colony. There are many tour companies who will be happy to take you out, or you can try your own luck by heading over to Sandfly Bay where we saw penguins and seals (for free) – click here to read more.

Night Seventeen: We loved Dunedin and it wasn’t just because they offer freedom camping for 48 hours within their city! Head over to the i Site in town where they’ll be happy to tell you where the free DCC (Dunedin City Council) camper sites are located. We chose the site down by the train station because our large camper van couldn’t fit in spots behind city hall.

Day Eighteen: Enjoy Dunedin! We spent the day in the city and headed over to the library to catch up on free internet. There are a few things to see within the city such as the Cadbury factory and the train museum.

Night Eighteen: Feel at home in Dunedin – we actually never moved our camper van from the night before, which was nice after so many days of moving around!

Day Nineteen: As we began getting ready to leave, we noticed large crowds flocking towards the train station and saw the Otago Farmer’s Market! If you’re lucky enough to be in Dunedin on the weekend, make sure you check it out and sample some of the produce and food from the south island. If you can pull yourself away, head north towards Oamaru on your way to Mt. Cook. There you can find some more penguin viewing site – most notably the one in Oamaru where you can pay $25-$35 each to watch for a few seconds as very small blue penguins come to shore in the evening and disappear just as fast to their man made penguin houses behind the stands. We decided we didn’t want to pay and instead we hiked up the hill overlooking the beach and saw them for free!

Night Nineteen: After our penguin viewing, we continued on towards Mt. Cook and pulled over for some freedom camping along the shores of Lake Aviemore.

Day Twenty: Today you’ll head to one of New Zealand’s most spectacular sites – Mt. Cook. On the way, we stopped in Twizel where we found a free dump station and water fill up for our camper van. From there, we headed to Mt. Cook where we found the behemoth of a mountain covered on all sides by snow and glaciers. As this is another of New Zealand’s beautiful National Park, the entrance was free and the park offers numerous hiking trails at various levels of toughness. On our first day, we selected one of the easier hikes up to the Tasmin Glacier and then headed up Hooker Valley on a three hour hike.

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Sunset Over Mt. Cook, New Zealand

Night Twenty: After a long day of hiking, you’ll probably be quite exhausted but if you’re like us, you’ll want to see more of the mountain. There are a few pull-offs just outside of the park entrance where you can try your luck and freedom camp. We pulled in behind some tall shrubs and stayed awake long enough to see the beautiful night sky as this is one of the best places to view the stars.

Day Twenty One: If you stay close to the National Park, take the opportunity to wake up early and catch the frost covering the grassy plains around the mountain. If you haven’t already, visit the information center to plan out your day’s hikes. We went with one of the tougher day hikes – Sealy tarns which included 1,810 vertical steps that led us a mountain facing Mt. Cook and the beautiful views it offered.

Night Twenty One: With tired legs, you’ll have to start thinking about the end of your time in New Zealand. As you leave the Mt. Cook area there are some great campgrounds on Lake Pukaki with views of the mountain in the background – one of the most beautiful views from campsites in New Zealand.

Day Twenty Two: Most people leave New Zealand via Christchuch on the south island. Your drive from Lake Puakaki will take up most of your day, but leave some time to explore Christchurch. Undoubtedly for years to come, you’ll be able to view the incredible damage brought by the earthquakes in 2010 and 2011. Check out the Quake Zone museum and the restart retail area to see how Christchurch is recovering from the vicious earthquakes.

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Damage Remains in Christchurch, New Zealand

Night Twenty Two: There aren’t any easily findable freedom camping sites in Christchurch but you can head out to Akarao which is a peninsula off Christchruch to find one. We found a nice spot on Barry’s Bay to stay the night and had no troubles.

Day Twenty Three: Wake up early and visit the town of Akaroa to enjoy some delicious coffee and breakfast. The beautiful little harbor side offers brilliant cafes along with dolphin and whale watching adventures. However, if this is your last day you’ll need to head back to Christchurch to catch your flight. Let the hilly drive back remind you of the beauty of New Zealand!