Campervan Tips for Touring South Island New Zealand

Lake Ohau stop over : Everyday we sat by a lake ringed by mountains sipping pipping hot spice tea made in our little kitchen of the campervan while we thought of more superlatives that could best describe this gorgeous land.

Hands down! There is no better way to connect with the heroic landscapes of South Island New Zealand, than planning a road trip on a campervan. Take it from a person who has lived in a van for approximately 25 days. Planning your South Island campervan holiday is lot more easier than you think with heaps of campervan rentals, motorhome options and an itinerary that gets you to drive, sight-see and spend the night at some of South Island’s unexplored spots. This article provides you some campervan tips for touring South Island New Zealand.

It’s not just about the self-driving aspect but being able to be on the road to reach a destination that you’ve read about so much and being able to stay there a few hours to sink in the stillness is a blessed experience by itself.

Over the years, many journalists and bloggers have come up with reasons on how travel lets you spread your wings and be a free bird! Somehow the two words: Travel and Freedom has often been used together to describe travel as a choice with absolutely no rules. When I think about the times that travel has limited my freedom, I recall the conventional ways that as a society we follow – look up Trip Advisor for hotel reviews before booking, things to see and do and their reviews. Truth is you don’t need to plan in advance or an excel sheet itinerary for a fabulous holiday.

Our Campervan Adventure

What started of as an innocent plan ended up to be a grand adventure. We hired a campervan on both our visits to South Island. Yes, I was here once in June, at the start of winter; and in December, summer time. We also did a road trip across Tasmania in Australia on a campervan but that’s for a later post.

I was so overwhelmed by South islands’ beauty that I decided to come back to have the same experience – mainly to go on a road trip along the Southern scenic route in a campervan of course and also to do the 4 day hike of the Kepler Track from Te Anau. We learnt so much along the way that not many guidebooks or blogs prepared us while planning. So here’s everything you need to know about road tripping across South Island on a campervan.

Also read: Queenstown to Glenorchy Roadtrip

Campervan Hire Near Christchurch Airport

The flight rates are incredibly cheap during shoulder season, and it’s very rare that travelers enjoy the cold as much as us – win-win! ?

Most campervan rentals are strategically located only few minutes from Christchurch airport which saves taxi fare. In June we hired a campervan from Britz so we just had to walk a few minutes to get to the rentals. In December though, we hired a camper from Lucky Rentals and because we had lot more luggage (2 massive suitcases filled with hiking gear and a 55l and 65l backpack), we requested a shuttle service to and from airport.

Type of Campervan and Best Time to Hire a Campervan in South Island, New Zealand

With heaps of campervan rentals, there are plenty of camper style options to choose from. The bigger the camper the better of course but rates vary accordingly with season too. We saw a massive difference in price while looking for a campervan for our December road trip (peak season).

Our Britz camper, the Mercedes sprinter had its own toilet/shower, kitchen, microwave, a small TV and a sofa to bed converter. It was luxury! Britz offer a 4 person camper and smaller ones too.

Camper_van_road trip in South_Island_New_Zealand in Winter
Our Mercedes Sprinter while road trippin’ in June
Top_tips_for_touring_South Island New Zealand on a Campervan
The kitchen
Campervan Interiors
The interiors. Cooking on the go.
Before hitting the bed, we’d shut all the curtains and lock the doors, but few minutes into the night I would just slightly slide open my side of the curtains to let in a speck of light from the moon. Sometimes when I couldn’t fall asleep, I’d get closer to the window and draw an imaginary line to connect the stars.

The bigger campervans as well as the smaller ones were way pricier in December so we did a bit of additional research to explore other budget friendly campervan rentals and we found Lucky Rentals – who were offering a small camper, Rookie, at just $700 for 14 days – includes picnic chairs and tables, utensils and portable stove, duvet, quilt and pillows and GPS.

Our Rookie beside lovely Lupins at Lake Ohau campsite. Can’t complain about the ‘no space’ inside when the outside is just boundless.

Freedom Camping In South Island

There are two types of campervans – self-contained and standard. Self-contained is basically a certification to show that the campervan can contain water waste for up to 3 days. On standard campervans, the water flows directly to the ground every time you open the tap over your sink. This is clearly not good for the environment or public health.

The advantage of a self contained vehicle is that you can do freedom camping at most of the public areas or camp grounds that does not have facilities like a toilet or a kitchen. The DOC campsites are usually in scenic places, even though the facilities may not be as good as the highly expensive ‘holiday parks’.

Which would you rather choose anyway? A crowded holiday park that offers a fireplace in their communal lounge or just vast acres of land overlooking Lake Pukaki where you will lose a sense of place and time in the hinterlands?

Road trip South Island New Zealand on a Campervan
Those views make you want to return!

Be Aware of the Weather to avoid Road Accidents

The weather in New Zealand is so unpredictable that you will be amazed that even in summer, there were forecasts of storm and heavy rainfalls. Because 60% of South Island is covered with mountain ranges, the roads are notoriously winding with some sharp twists and turns, prone to accidents especially when the weather is blue.

Roadtrip south Island New Zealand on a Campervan
Lindis Pass: one of my favorite roads. Make sure you drive on the left side of the road. Take it slow, watch the bends, and enjoy the landscape.

Accidents are not the only thing you need to be aware of. During our road trip in June, we faced a freak incident: To take a break, we parked the van on the grass paver for few minutes. When we started our campervan, the wheels rolled and dug the earth beneath drilling a hole. The more we accelerated, the back wheels dug a deeper rut in the soft mud caused due to rain. We tried the good ol’ traditional ways of placing stones under the wheels but they wouldn’t budge. I was beginning to despair what we got into.

Minutes passed. I watched the sun light rays light the Waiho River slowly moving higher onto Franz Joseph bridge in the West Coast. Then in a suspended moment, shorter wavelengths of light begin to scatter away, turning into a red-orange color just before disappearing behind the snow-capped peaks. For a while you stand and stare and let the magic of South Island seep into you. And then you think about the geographical characteristics: I recalled an article that spoke about the flooded Waiho River and NZATs’ decision to lift the bridge by a few meters.

Top Tips for Touring South Island New Zealand on a Campervan
Bridge and Waiho river

As it got darker, I worried about our wheels. Just then somebody stopped by to help us but he couldn’t pull out the wheels either. Another motorhome stopped by, luckily had 4 strong men who seem to be experts in situations like this. In few seconds we were out and on our way. Think about the good things you’ve done previously aye?

Don’t Be Afraid of Hitchhikers

We slept through the night feeling thankful. Next day as we were on our way to Wanaka, we spotted two German hitchhikers just off Franz Joseph. We picked up the hitchhikers without a second thought. Excited to hear their travel stories and whereabouts, I cleared up the back seats to place their backpacks.

For centuries, we have heard stories about how unsafe hitchhiking could be and also how unsafe helping them would be. But listen to your instinct, you realise you are just helping travellers – some who wants to save money and some who simply wants to experience different ways to travel.

Remember to Carry Car Accessories

I can’t imagine driving to work without music. How can I do without it on a road trip? I make sure I get the premium Spotify for the freedom to listen to any genre depending on the mood at the time. I let it download so when there is limited network, I can replay the downloaded playlist and listen to them again.

The big campervans allow you to connect your phone directly to its bluetooth while the small ones require an aux cable. So make sure you buy an aux cable from your hometown. Most vans have a cigarette lighter so you can also consider carrying a cigarette bluetooth adapter that will let you connect to your music and also charge phones. We always run out of charge on our phones and Go Pro so we carry our adapter everywhere. But forgot for this time in New Zealand and ended up buying adapter for $35 when it costs only half the price in Australia.

Double Check Campervan Amenities

When you pick up your van from the rentals, make sure you request for add-ons like chairs and table for a nice dinner watching the sunset, awnings for protection from rain and sun and duvet for the bedding.

From table and chairs to GPS, check everything if they are in working condition before leaving the rentals. When we hired the campervan in Tasmania, it had no awnings and with heavy rains we could have really used those.

This time in South Island, our table had missing screws so we struggled a bit for not having space to keep food and drinks at dinner time. Because of sand flys in summer, you don’t want to risk keeping your cooked meals on the ground or out of your notice.

For bedding, confirm with the rentals if there is a quilt, and 2 pillows. Even during summer, it is still safe to have a quilt, as sometimes nights can be freezing.  The sprinter and the 2 berth campervans most definitely have separate heating system that works amazingly well.

Check with the rentals if your van has a port to connect a portable heater, if they don’t then you may have to make do with the standard heating that we normally have on cars.

On our first night in December, the temperatures dropped to 7C and I almost didn’t catch a wink as it was windy and freezing. Somehow I assumed our van came with no quilt and so wrapped ourselves with a thin bed-sheet – “I’m so smart”! I found the quilt hidden under the seats only few days before the end of our trip – clearly shows I’m a genius.

Extras: From personal experience, I’d recommend to just use your phone google maps instead of the GPS as the smaller vans sometimes may come with a GPS that isn’t user-friendly. Plus GPS is about $5 extra per day! Maybe get a battery pack instead:).

– If you hire a bigger campervan, say maybe a sprinter, you could ask the van attendant about wi-fi offers. Our sprinter came with a 1GB wi-fi that you connect from the GPS system. We also had a Spark sim on our phone with enough data as a safety option.

 Buy Groceries and Other Necessities on the First Day

Before you head to the mountains, stock those empty spaces with food. Cooking is lot more fun when you have all your favorite spices: pepper and chilli powder; and sauces. While ready-to-eat items are an option, I prefer cooking from scratch. Travelling is all about good food, so why the compromise. We have cooked chicken and rice, even pastas in our little portable stove that comes with the camper.

Don’t forget to grab some drinks to wash down the delicious food.

mossburn campsite on a road trip to Te Anau
Mossburn Campsite: Home-made chicken curry, vegetables, some wine and nature.

There is a Countdown supermarket about 4 km from Christchurch Airport. If you are too tired to cook after a long flight, you have plenty of lunch options just around this corner.

If you need a lot of space to cook, most campsites have a communal kitchen that lets you use all their amenities like stove including their utensils. During summer, large families sometimes crowd the kitchen so we just cooked in our camper rather than waiting in a queue.

Also add toiletries to your list.

Remember camp fires are not really allowed in a lot of places in New Zealand. Ask the one who foolishly carried blocks of wood in the vehicle throughout the entire trip, hoping to camp fire – at least on a cold day during summer. Ask me!

Keep a set of easy-to-reach roll of toilet paper, paper towel and wet wipes so you don’t have to stop every second when in need. Carry flu tablets and Panadols – to pop in some as soon you start feeling mildly sick.

Remember to get mosquito and sand fly repellent if you’re travelling in Summer. Keep those blood sucking insects away as they shouldn’t be the reason you’d want to go home :).

Best Sim Card to Buy in South Island, New Zealand

Christchurch Airport has two stalls – Spark and Vodafone. We tested these and also the Go Degree sim and were happy with all 3. However, the Go Degree sim ran out of range more frequently compared to Spark and Vodafone. So if given a choice, I’d stick to either of the two.

Finding Campsites through Apps

With apps like CamperMate and Camping NZ, you can easily find campsites with a click of a button. We were completely dependent on the app. Since we find campsites based on the views and locations and of course clean amenities, I would look for a site close to a waterfront or overlooks a mountain. We’d find a spot on the app and then google for more reviews and photos – though the apps does have reviews and photos.

Mount Cook Campsite: Taking my own sweet time to learn the art of night photography – there can’t be a better spot than this. :). Look at that sky dotted with twinkling stars.

Some of my favorite campsites were Lake Outlet Holiday Park where you can park right beside Lake Wanaka ringed by snow capped peaks in winter; Mossburn Country Park on the way to Te Anau, set in 28 acres surrounded by mountains and pristine rivers; and White Horse Hill Ground in Mount Cook that has the Alpine scenery (few minutes from the Hooker Valley track).

Lake Ohau stop over : Everyday we sat by a lake ringed by mountains sipping pipping hot spice tea made in our little kitchen of the campervan while we thought of more superlatives that could best describe this gorgeous land.

The app also maps dump stations, petrol stations, ATMs and accommodations.

Silly Campervan Tips for Touring South Island New Zealand

Before you start driving, make sure to keep all the utensils and any little thing inside the cabins as they can topple and toss around the van, before you set of to your next destination. This might just be so annoying and may impact your focus on driving.

Pull back all your curtains before you start driving – especially your back curtains.

Once you have stopped at a campsite for the night, if you have no space to set up the bed, clear the area and stack the luggage on the front seats so you don’t have to worry about moving things every time you want to relax or pick up something from the cupboards.

Make sure you switch off the gas before you start the vehicle. Keep a checklist in front of the dashboard as a reminder.

The heater, microwave and tv requires power so you may need a powered site to use these.

Make the Camper Your Home

Even though I barely keep my home always tidy, I kept our campervan super clean, clearing off any dirt from the outside. I was pretty adamant to keep it cosy and slightly romantic with little fairy warm lights. It just made the camper all the more a comfortable place to be in.

d New Zealand on a Campervan
Fairy lights also make up for a great prop for photography.

Have you been on a road trip in a campervan before or would you like to try it someday? Share your comments below:)

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    1. says: Shilpa Balakrishnan

      It sure does Patricia. You are so lucky to have all the gorgeous places right at your backyard 😉

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