As a family of campervan enthusiasts, there was only one way we were going to enjoy the beauty of New Zealand’s South Island.
So with the kids on summer holidays, we flew over from Sydney to pick up our rental Maui camper in Christchurch.
The strong Aussie dollar allowed our NZ holiday budget to stretch to the relative luxury of the Maui Spirit 4, a late model Mercedes Sprinter 311 conversion with toilet and shower.
The $286 daily hire rate (in peak season), included extra collision insurance and optional table and chairs, and while not exactly a budget option, gave us the freedom to do as we pleased.
North to south
With our two kids safely buckled up in the rear lounge seat and wired into their laptops, we drove out onto the quiet roads of Christchurch, stocking up at the main supermarket before heading through the flat arable lands of the Canterbury Plain.
With the imposing rugged spine of the Southern Highlands away on our right, we fled south on Highway 1 among the exodus of other campervans.
Peak season on South Island felt like the wacky RV races but the hordes of visiting Europeans thinned out further south and despite no pre-bookings, we were never turned away from any campsite or van park.
Turning off the highway and heading for Lake Tekapo, the gradient steepened as we climbed into Mackenzie Country with its wild gorse (transplanted from Scotland by early settlers) carpeting the rolling hills.
The Mercedes began clicking down through its automatic five speed gearbox until, broaching the top of a rise a loud “wow” from my wife alerted us all to the amazing spectacle of the turquoise waters of Lake Tekapo in the distance.
The following morning’s two-hour drive along nearby Lake Pukaki brought us under the shadow of snow-covered Mount Cook, which at 12,316 feet, is New Zealand’s highest peak.
We enjoyed a drink on the scenic sundeck of the Hermitage Hotel followed by a fascinating hour spent in the mountaineer museum in a couple of highlights of Mount Cook village.
The bracing three-hour walk around the base of the great mountain wasn’t bad either, and I could see why its mighty snow crevices, gullies and plateaus had attracted Sir Edmund Hillary to train here before climbing Everest.
Pulling into the DOC campsite at nearby Hooker Valley (just $8 fee), we enjoyed the mountain serenity with daylight stretching beyond 9pm in this land of high latitudes.
But with a storm forecast, we braced ourselves for a night of rain but even worse followed, with powerful katabatic winds crashing down the mountain sides to severely shake our campervan.
Escaping the misty mountains, the following day’s drive along empty roads, passing hydro electric schemes and occasional small farms, took us back towards the east coast.
Filling up the Merc’s 85-litre diesel tank cost about A$65 (NZ$86) in the tourist resort town of Omarama, before we headed south and along the coast to the university city of Dunedin.
The rain had followed us all the way and this city of Scottish heritage (its name is Gaelic for Edinburgh and its street names replicate Scotland’s capital’s) reminded us strongly of long past student days in the UK’s seventh most populous city.
Off the beaten track
It was to be our last big town for many days as we left the popular tourist trail to head further south through the picturesque coastal forests of the Catlins, where we strolled on desolate beaches and enjoyed free camping in quiet glades.
Our campervan’s toilet and shower cubicle came into its own on this leg.
Watching my son surfing on the same wave as a pod of friendly Hector’s dolphins was a special moment on this rugged coast, an area mostly populated by big boned Cheviot sheep and patrolled by swooping eagles.
After a couple of days this route finally took us to New Zealand’s southernmost town of Invercargill, made famous a few years ago by the movie The World’s Fastest Indian.
Its wide streets and clapperboard houses are reminiscent of many Australian towns but the seemingly endless daylight confirmed the area’s higher latitude (46 degrees south).
Heading west along the remote south coast, the roads narrowed with many single track bridges, and the growing hills signalled our approach to the World Heritage Fiordland. Pulling into a rainy Te Anau, the jumping off town for the winding drive to Milford Sound, we enjoyed a few pints of Speights while listening to karaoke in the raucous Moose Bar.
Back in the camper conga line
An early start found us back in convoy with many of the campervans we’d first encountered in Christchurch.
Together, we snaked our way 130km west past cascading waterfalls, through the eerie Homer Tunnel and over the ubiquitous single track bridges to board the tour boats.
The sheltered waters of Milford Sound are home to seals that frolick along the edges while windblown, mares tail waterfalls crash down the towering mountain sides.
“It’s like Lord of the Rings dad,” my son observed.
Back-tracking from Milford, a long drive north follows to the mountain resort of Queenstown with its busy airport and hordes of thrill seekers; our own thrills partaken including paragliding, mountain biking and racing billy carts dangerously fast down the town’s mountain.
A short stroll from our spot at the modern Lake View Campsite also had us sipping cafe lattes for a change of pace. But with the clock ticking our South Island adventure had to move on so we motored north, climbing up the hairpin bends towards picturesque Wanaka and then along the twisting alpine roads west.
We overnighted at the edge of the mighty Haast River, gasping at the icy chill of its swollen waters before the evening’s onslaught of sandflies drove us into the van and the protection of its insect netted doors and windows.
Moving ever north along the unpopulated west coast, walking shoes were donned for a hike up to the Franz Joseph Glacier where the late evening sun lit up the creamy folds of the ice flow.
The crisp alpine air nipped our nostrils while cheeky Kea birds searched for titbits and swaggered around comically like old men.
Heading off on another trail, a literary one this time, took us in search of Keri Hulme, the author of the Booker Prize winning novel, The Bone People. So we sped off towards the coastal village of Okarito.
In this quiet hamlet, an honesty box was the only sign of officialdom at the small campsite and a beach bonfire with other travellers ended a tranquil evening.
For the final leg of our 3100km island sojourn, we sprinted north and east, skirting through the coastal town of Hokitika and marvelling at the work of its jade artisans.
We then motored inland to reach the north coast at bustling Nelson on the edge of the Marlborough Sounds region.
Sampling the area’s legendary crisp Sauvignon Blancs while gasping at the views from the single track roads was the reward for our long drive north, before we reluctantly turned for Christchurch and our airplane home.