Comprehensive Camper Van Guide to Spending Winter in New Zealand

Updated: Mar 2, 2020

I have been neglecting my blog - got real busy with work (such a cliche, I know). Nevertheless, I am finally ready to write about the best trip we ever did as a couple (my solo trip to Iceland will be an all time favorite).

After 36 countries across 6 continents, I can honestly say that THIS road trip around Middle-Earth was a journey like no other.

Traveling in New Zealand was a humbling experience. The vast plains, zigzagging highways weaving their way past towering mountains is enough to impress even the most hardened traveler. It's not just the natural beauty that impressed me but also the people. Extra points for the kiwis who are some of the kindest people we have ever met.

I also loved how incredibly sustainable they are. From recyclable packaging on every single product to supporting locally owned stores to going that extra mile to preserve their beautiful country, they have pulled all the stops. Massive respect. Everyone should learn from this tiny island.

There is SO much to see in New Zealand. 2 or 3 months won't suffice - and that was the biggest issue while I was planning. I had to really resist trying to squeeze in every hike and every lake. Nevertheless, in 14 days we managed to cover a fair few stunning places with judicious planning and research while crafting our itinerary/route-map.

New Zealand was even more stunning than we thought it would be. Welcome to the Middle Earth: one of the most beautiful places on earth. This was our two week itinerary

Day 0 - Dubai to Auckland

Day 1 - Auckland city. Cathedral Cove.

Day 2 - Matamata. Hobbiton.

Day 3 - Christchurch to Hokitaka. Drive through Arthur's Pass. 

Day 4 - Hokitaka to Glacier Country

Day 5 - Glacier Country to Haast

Day 6 - Haast to Milford Sound

Day 7 - Fiordland to Queenstown

Day 8 - Queenstown - Moke Lake Hike Day 9 - Wanaka for the Roy's Peak Hike

Day 10 - Wanaka to Twizel for the Rob's Roy Peak Hike - Wanaka City and That Wanaka Tree

Day 11 - Lake Pukaki to Mount Cook

Day 12 - Lake Tekapo and Church of Good Shepherd

Day 13 - Tekapo to Christchurch Airport hotel

Day 14 - Auckland to Dubai


Best time to visit

I am sure it is wonderful to visit throughout the year with every season providing a different but memorable experience.

We decided to do this trip in winter to avoid the high prices and the massive crowds... while it wasn't easy living in a tiny van with the crazy weather, it definitely paid off while on the road. Fewer camper vans, empty campsite and on most days, there were hardly 4 or 5 people with us on the hike. Just what we like.


Flights and Visa

The visa process was straightforward. Applied online and got our passport verified with the local office. Got our visa in 5 days.


We flew with Singapore Airlines to Auckland and back. LOVED the service, the food and the entertainment. Beautiful experience on a 19 hour journey.


Language

Though they have their own native language, everyone speaks English.


Travel and Medical Insurance, Currency

Travel and Medical Insurance is always recommended.


Cost

New Zealand is expensive. Period. North or South. East or West. There is no two ways about it. The food, grocery, gas, everything is pricey. So if you think you can do this trip "on a budget", you might want to consider having a sizable budget. Plan well in advance and yes, traveling during off season does help cut down the camper van cost substantially.

Renting A Camper Van

Another reason we did this trip during winter - the cost of the camper van. I did a LOT of research on camper vans before finally settling for our little girl from JUCY. You can find details on all their vans on the website. We went for the self-contained Jucy Chaser. This camper van is designed for three so it was pretty comfortable for the two of us to move around. We used the additional space for our trek bags and jackets. The kitchen comes with a small fridge, pots and pans, ladles and mugs. Since it is self-contained, it also comes with a restroom - it was TINY for my tall hubs but it helped us big time during the cold long winter nights. I would definitely recommend going for this one if you are looking for a spacious camper van for two.

Somethings to keep in mind while choosing a camper van - number of people traveling, do you need a toilet, how long are you traveling for?


TIP: Don't forget to ask for your airport pick up and drop when you book your JUCY van!


Ten things to keep in mind if you are traveling with a camper van:


1. The Campermate app - this is the only guide you will ever need to get around the country. Download it before your trip. Save everything offline. Treasure it. Follow it to the T. From gas to free campsites to restaurants, it has everything.

2. The roads are long, endless and windy. If you decide to drive long distances along the west, be sure to take at least 2 or 3 stops - not just for you, but for your van too. At one point, there was smoke coming out of the tyre because we drove up the mountain for 6 hours non-stop. Lesson-learned!

3. Before going for a camper van rental, make sure you are comfortable driving stick. The bigger camper vans are not automatic. The vans, while not huge, are bulky. It does take a bit of getting used to while turning, backing up or parking.


4. Grocery - as soon as you pick up your camper van from the Jucy branch, next to the Christchurch airport, the first thing you will want to do is head to the nearest grocery store to stock for the week(s) ahead. We went to PakNSave - a short 12 minute drive from Jucy. While buying grocery, think easy, quick, ready-to-eat meals. You will be exhausted after your hikes, so you won't really be in a position to cook an elaborate meal. We picked up vegan burgers, pasta and vegan sauces, Quesadilla wraps, and vegetables that we could cook in 10 minutes or less.

5. If you travel during the winter like we did, be prepared for COLD nights. I do think you can rent a heater - but I didn't read this anywhere and I wasn't informed by Jucy. Any way, if you happen to find yourself without a heater, dress in layers even as you sleep. Trust me, you will need it!


6. Bring your own AUX for charging phones and music. Also, buy a matchbox to light the stove. You will need it - especially in winter.


7. Irrespective of the time of the year, the west coast is going to be wet. So pack towels, poncho and an extra pairs of socks.


8. You will find plenty of free campsites everywhere you go BUT during peak season, these will get crowded by 3 p.m. In winter, this wasn't an issue but since the free camp sites won't have any light, you will need to arrive by sun down to find the place in the middle of nowhere. Also, you will need a paid campsite if you intend to charge your DSLR cameras, laptop and the likes.


9. Every third day, you will want heat and a long shower. You won't find these at a free campsite. So splurge a little for that beautiful paid campsite - free wifi, hot shower, a BIG kitchen to cook and clean. It will also give you a chance to wash/dry your damp clothes.


10. If you do the itinerary we did, there won't be a lot of connectivity along the road, especially at night. You will be too excited to sleep Bring a book. Download movies. It's going to save you on those rainy nights in the forest.


Safety

Despite the recent attack on Christchurch, this is still one of the safest and most beautiful countries on the planet.


Connectivity

The wifi is paid in most places and not very fast. Get a sim card as soon you land, the data should last you for 2 weeks, depending on usage.


What to pack for winter

Toiletries. Medicines. Jackets. Ponchos. Waterproof pants and boots. Gloves. Scarves. Beanies.

Day 0 - land in Auckland

We landed just past midnight, jet lagged and starving. The first thing we did was pick up our Vodafone number with 4GB data and exchanged our currency. Since we were only going to stay for a couple days, we just booked a hotel next to the airport to crash. We had arranged for airport pick up with the hotel, he was a Tamilian - once he realized we were as well, he immediately suggested we head to the nearest Indian restaurant about 10 minutes from the hotel with the best dosa - SO YUM (we ended up eating there thrice in 2 days)!

Day 1 - Coramandel Peninsula Rise and Shine. It was our first day in the country. After a quick breakfast run, we went to the airport again to rent ourselves an Enterprise car for our trip. Our first stop was going to be the stunning beach - Cathedral Cove. After a beautiful 3 hour drive with fall colors on either side of the road and nothing but cattle to keep us company, we finally reached the parking lot.

Two options from here - you can either park for FREE at the Haihei Beach parking and hike 3 hours (including return) or you can park at the paid GRANGE parking spot and hike for about 1.5 hours up and down.

The beach was basically a rocky area with golden sand and wild sea. Paradise.

The place was serene, almost empty and just spectacular. We spent a long time strolling through here. We also packed a light lunch when we stopped for gas - great spot for a picnic. So grateful for a bright and beautiful day.

Since the weather was so good, we decided to defy our impending jet lag and went to the Cornwall Park on the way back to the city. There is a small little walk inside the park called the One Tree Hill Summit. After about 25 minutes, you will reach the tower from where you will have panoramic views of the city. It also happens to be the best place in the city to visit a volcano!

Day 2 - Hobbiton/Matamata. Bridal Veil Falls. Hakarimata Scenic Reserve.

First half. Journey to middle earth, an adventure we had been waiting for since we started planning this trip. We drove to Hobbiton at 8 a.m.

Since it was off season, we did not find the need to book our tickets in advance. After we got our tickets, we were taken in a bus to the entrance of the "movie set" with a guide who was with us giving us a bunch of inside-info on how Peter Jackson found this spot and what a perfectionist he was.

As soon as we stepped in, we noticed that there was nothing gimmicky about this place - it was going to be the REAL Middle-Earth experience. It was an idyllic setting that was making all our wild LOTR dreams come alive.

I must mention the attention to detail, it was just unbelievable... like being transported into another world.. a world where we could almost see yourself following in Bilbo’s cute little footsteps and yelling “I am going on an adventure”. We loved every second we spent here and honestly wished we didn’t ever have to leave.

The tour was just 1 hour but it flew by especially since we were so busy recollecting all our favorite lines from the film. From the minute we set foot on the set, all I could think of this quote of J R R Tolkein - “if more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world”. We were two happy little teenagers inside a magical world... and boy, what a crazy beautiful world it was!

Fun Tip: definitely visit the restaurant in Hobiton for a hot drink or food - it's expensive but totally amazing with great vegetarian options.


Instead of heading back to the city, we decided to drive on wards towards the Bridal Veil Falls. This is a very straightforward walk down to see the waterfall. Bunch of stairs led us down to the base - since it hadn't rained, the falls weren't as magnificent as I had hoped it would be but still a worthy discovery, if you have the time.

As we were driving back to Auckland, we took another quick detour to hit the HAKARIMATA SCENIC RESERVE. It was deserted and foggy.. but we kept at it and 45 minutes later we were at the Cascade Falls. We weren't able to get very close but it was still a worthy detour.

Day 3 - Christchurch to Hokitaka via Arthur's Pass We took the flight from Auckland to Christchurch, landed at 8 a.m. went straight to Jucy to pick up our Jucy Chaser van. The dark clouds were already looming over us.

The roads started off without much of a spectacle but before long we were navigating through snow-capped mountains, miles of lush grasslands and endless winding roads. Every turn we took revealed a landscape more dramatic than the last. We gasped and sighed more often than we can remember.

We made a two hour pit stop at the amazing Devil's Punchbowl waterfall. We climbed a whole bunch of steep stairs to finally make it to the top.

Campsite: we stayed at the Woodstock Hotel and Brew Pub, a low-cost free campsite in Hokitaka. As we settled in for the night, little did we know that we were in for five more days of non-stop thunderstorms but not even the relentless rain could deter our spirits. The real adventure was only just beginning.


Day 4 - Hokitaka to Glacier Country

Another early start on a rainy day. We were ready to explore the wild untamed west. We had a two hour window that morning without rain, so we drove to Lake Kanerie in Hokitaka. It was just empty. We took our time time walking around the lake.

Our next stop was the Hokitaka Gorge. One scary long bridge cross later, we reached the gorge. The water wasn’t as blue because of the rain but it was still dreamy with the looming clouds. The rainforest drives and pristine lake views in this country were just blowing us away.

Campsite - we drove a few hours and stayed at the Franz Josef Campervan Park, a paid site with a great hot shower, big kitchen and good cafes around.

We spent our evening walking around the cute town. There were a lot of cute restaurants here but the hubs was craving Indian. We made some veggie sambar and potato eggplant curry.

Day 5 - Glacier Country to Haast After a nice breakfast of toasted bagels, we made our way to Canavans Knob Walk - one of the few hikes that were not closed off due to bad weather.

We then checked out and went on to see Fox Glacier. We already knew we won’t be able to do glacier walks because of the awful weather.. so we only intended to see Lake Matheson.

You can do one of two loops around the park to visit the lake - we chose the longer one. It took us about 1.5 hours - with a lot of small stops along the way.

Apparently, on a clear day you can see the reflection of the Fox Glacier on the lake. We could only see the slightest reflection of the alps but it’s so hard to be bothered by these little things in the midst of such beauty. There is barely any filter here...just pure New Zealand.

Campsite - the drive up to Haast was really special with surreal view points along the way. Though we had plans of staying in a proper campsite in a town but the weather got real bad, real fast.. so we had to pick the Cameron Flat campsite inside Mount Aspiring. Zero connectivity. Raging storm. Rattling Camper Van. Wild Wild West indeed. Dinner was a hot pot of methi mattar tofu. Netflix and hot food. THIS IS WHAT HEAVEN MUST FEEL LIKE!

Day 6 - Haast to Milford Sound

We skipped the Haast Blue Pools because of the nasty weather - the water won't be blue in winter or if it has rained. I just wanted to get out of the jungle, so we got up at 6 and started driving... towards what was easily the best road of the trip. Also, finally, a wee bit of sunshine. Thank YOU, Universe!

We were driving along Haast with Laka Wanaka and Lake Hawea on either side. Leave enough time to drive through this road because it's just that stunning.

This was the longest drive of the trip, not to mention the constant uphill climb... we had to do multiple stops to give the van a break. The stops included The Chasm and Falls Creek.

Campsite - Milford Sound Lodge. While there are many free and low campsites along the way, I would recommend splurging on this delightful resort. It was around 5 when we finally made it to the lodge. Since I had read how beautiful this place was, we really wanted to make the most of it. We did laundry, read books, played games.. it was such a wonderful evening. Much needed semi-luxurious feel in the middle of the jungle. We went for a paid powered-site, dinner was a nice one-pot biryani with the leftover gravy from the previous night.

Day 7 - Milford Sound - Fiordland

After the non-stop raining, we were SO grateful to wake up to a sunny day. We checked out and started driving towards Milford Sound.

We had a 11 am cruise booked (booked the Jucy cruise) and had a few hours to kill. Luckily, there was plenty to do around the place. We went to the Foreshore walk. The first thing we noticed was the otherworldly landscape.

Towering mountains and glaciers jut as if out of nowhere, rain forests brim with flora and fauna found nowhere else on earth and pristine beaches dot the stunning coast.

When I say “out of nowhere“, I mean it - these were the views on our way to the cruise. I can’t even!

The ship was huge and had fresh tea and coffee. It had a lower and upper deck - if you are brave enough to venture out in the freezing cold. It’s the best way to get up close and personal with the 96272 odd waterfalls in Fiordland, including the famous Stirling Waterfall.

No trip to New Zealand is complete without heading to Milford Sound. This place offers one of the world’s most spectacular scenery. The weather can be a dampener here with rain for 200 days of the year.. but don’t let that deter your spirits. Whatever the weather, the beauty of this place shines through the cloudy skies, majestic mountains and endless Fjords. Nothing can prepare you for the sheer scale of the landscape.

Even if you just have 10 days in the island, this is a must-do. It really makes you realize what a tiny place you occupy in the world.

Campsite - we started to drive back at around 2 p.m. and made it to the Diamond Lake Campsite right next to Lake Wakatipu, about an hours drive from Queenstown city. Settled in for the night with a spicy spinach wrap with jalapeno hummus and grilled veggies.

Day 8 - Queenstown - Moke Lake Hike

We woke up at the crack of dawn to a magical scenery the next morning. You know what they say about happiness? It really is about the little things. I could get used to this blissful life..

There are plenty of hikes in the Queenstown-Wanaka area but for us it is always about the off beat trails. We drove for an hour along Lake Wakatipu until we hit the MOKE ROAD. Drove up a steep hill for about 15 minutes until we started to see a few lakes. We were already excited because the rain had finally stopped and the weather was going to be fantastic. How did we know? Well, the reflections on the lakes could not have been more epic.

After driving through some rough terrain for another 20 minutes, we finally made it to the Lake Moke area. It was just 9 a.m. - we were the only ones there. We spent a lot of time just clicking the pictures and pinching ourselves - how do such places exist?


By 10 we started walking towards the trail only to find the bridge that leads to the track was partly flooded. That wasn't going to stop us though - off we went into the icy cold water.

We continued walking along a fence until we hit the end of the path with directions onward to the loop. We decided to skip this and started going right towards a faint up hill road. There was no path there but that was half the fun. It's just rugged grass with room for one leg. Since it was a warm day, it wasn't slippery but I would not recommend doing this on a rainy day. We kept walking up for around 45 minutes until we found our spot - with the perfect reflection.

We were so lucky to have a cloudless sky and no wind. I couldn't believe how clear the lake was at midday - not a ripple.


It's key to visit Moke Lake on a clear day without any wind to be able to enjoy watching nature's biggest mirror come to life. If you want to do one thing in Queenstown and the weather is on your side - THIS is the hike you need to do!

Lunch was at 3 p.m - a delicious masala burger because we were famished!

Pro Tip: the Moke Lake is actually a low cost campsite. So if you have the time, I would highly recommend staying here overnight.


Campsite - it was time for another paid site so we drove back towards Queenstown to stay in Mount Aspiring Holiday Park, right next to Roy's Peak. The sky was LIT with a jillion stars.


Day 9 - Wanaka for the Roy's Peak Hike

It was time for a big hike. On a chilly winter morning, we went up 5000 feet on Mount Roy and were welcomed by this otherworldly views. We wanted to catch the sunrise but we were just a little exhausted from our hike the previous day.. we only started our hike at 9 a.m.


This hike was a constant steep climb up - took us a good 2 hours to do (one way) and this was due to the path being wet, slippery and in parts, impossible to walk through. Luckily we had our trek poles..

The trek itself was fairly uneventful (no dramatic change in views). That's not to say that there wasn't any drama during the trek. We started the trek when it was bright and sunny but when we got to the top, it started to snow.

We were blown away by the panoramic views with mountains as far as our eyes could see.

Tip: If you are planning on doing this trek in winter, definitely carry a pole to avoid falling on your face!


Campsite - after a long tiring day, we just wanted to spend the evening relaxing. We stayed at the low cost Red Bridge campsite for the night.


Day 10 - Wanaka to Twizel for the Rob's Roy Peak Hike - Wanaka City and That Wanaka Tree

Yet another sunny day meant it was time for another hike... but let me a tell you a little about this particular drive.. not a soul, just sheep, lush green grass and snowy mountains. If you thought you have seen it all, then this drive will surprise you once again.

This is NOT an easy drive in winter. It's about an hour's drive from Wanaka on gravel road. We had to cross close to six shallow streams.

Tip: I recommend checking the weather and road conditions before venturing out - your car may go through but a camper van will struggle on a rainy/snowy day.

From the parking to the summit and back took us about 5 hours to complete. There is a swing bridge to walk to.. the upper view point is about 3 to 4 hours from there.

The hike wasn't as boring as the Roy's Peak trek. In fact it had spectacular views with stellar mountain peaks, turquoise blue streams, valley views and walks on icy boulders.

We got to the lower view point in 1.5 hours but didn't want to stop there, especially not on a clear day..

We kept pushing on and finally made it to the top. It was so worth the trouble of nearly slipping of icy rocks.

Second half of our day was spent in Wanaka city. The Fall vibes were so amazing that evening.

Of course, we had to visit the insta-famous Wanaka Tree. There were 50 people there just waiting to get a time-lapse video... to be honest, it was a little underwhelming but if you have the time to kill, it's worth a quick pit stop.

Campsite - by 8 p.m. we had made it to our free campsite for the night. Lake Pukaki Reserve, right on the banks of Lake Pukaki. Dinner was a one-pot ready to eat Fettucine Alfredo. It was windy and chilly but we were excited about the sunrise next morning.


Day 11 - Lake Pukaki to Mount Cook

This campsite turned out to be more brilliant than the free one in Wanaka. Once again we woke up before the sun was up.. didn't want to waste a second.

It is in New Zealand we discovered that sunrises can be as surreal as sunsets.

Around 8, we finally started driving towards Mount Cook but also did a hundred pit stop along the way.. because how can we not with views like these?

The Hooker Valley trail, which was a part of our original itinerary, was closed due to the flooding early this year. That didn't bother us.. there were so many other things to do inside Mount Cook. We first went to the Tasman Glacier and Blue Lake. There is a view point of sorts, where you just climb a bunch of stairs to see the lake from the top.

This wasn't going to be enough for us. So we decided to keep walking to find trails leading us close to the Tasman river. However, we quickly discovered that there is no trail as such - we had to climb a lot of icy boulders and huge rocks to get close to the river.

Seeing the glaciers up close took me right back to my Iceland trip. I was so excited being there with the husband.. he finally got to experience the icy high as well.

We spent the rest of our afternoon hiking alongside icy blue glaciers.

I will always be fascinated by icebergs. I love to watch them move - the way they constantly change and evolve along the way. If you listen, it’s almost as if they are singing to us. This was at sunset in Mount Cook.. the warmth and light of the day departing, the colors of the lake intensifying. Icebergs silently float along the still water. They are enthralling in every sense of the word.

Campsite - at around 4 p.m. we started driving towards Tekapo. We stayed at the Lake Tekapo Motels and Holiday Park paid campsite right in front of the stellar Lake Tekapo


Day 12 - Lake Tekapo and Church of Good Shepherd

We always get low at the end of a trip.. we just wanted to have a day to do NOTHING. So that is just what we did.. woke up late, had a lovely lunch.. the rest of the day was spent playing cards and talking to the people at the campsite.

The campsite we stayed at is right opposite Tekapo, so there was a sort of private access of sorts to the lake. We were alone at sunset.. clicked a gazillion pictures.

I just couldn't believe this was real...

We also wanted to see the Good Shepherd Church. Don't miss this one.. despite the hoards of tourist buses, it's worth spending a few hours here.

Tip: Go at sunset, sunrise or to capture the milkway..

Campsite - same campsite as the previous night


Day 13 - Tekapo to Christchurch Airport hotel

It was time to head back... but first one more mind blowing sunrise.

Note: On your last day, you will want to spend some time cleaning out your camper van. Dump the brown water (water from the loo) and drinking water, clean all utensils, pots, pans, fold the bed and sheets, take out the trash. This took up a chunk of our morning. We returned our Jucy van in Christchurch at around 5. Our flight to Auckland was at 8 p.m.


Day 14 - fly Auckland - Dubai

Crashed at the airport for a few hours before our 2 a.m. flight back home.


Final thoughts

Here is a small impression from one of my favorite mornings in New Zealand. Three reasons why I loved it so much: grand views, perfect silence and enough time to take everything in.

He likes history, I like planning for the future. He likes to relax, I like to rush. He doesn’t care for coffee, I live for it BUT the one thing we both agree on though is that we love the mountains. The rougher and more majestic they are, the more we love them. That’s why New Zealand became one of our absolute favorite places on earth.

There isn’t an inch of New Zealand that we didn’t love but these glacier lake reflections were straight out of a fairy tale. Most of these lakes are fed by melting snow, the colors and the reflections on a clear day are beyond breathtaking. It was by far one of the most amazing sights we have ever seen in our travels. We tried to do as many lakes as possible and each of them were more stunning than the next.

When we first laid eyes on our van, we were a little overwhelmed since it was all too new for us. We just stepped in hoping for the best but nothing could have prepared us for the whirlwind adventure we were about to have for the next two weeks. From sleeping under the stars in campsites by pristine lake, to driving through unbelievably scenic roads or just having this amazing feeling of “living on the go”.

I’ll be honest, it was not always fun and games inside a tiny van.. especially so during the winter when we had to sort out your van twice a day or cook in the biting cold... BUT if you are planning a road trip in winter I can assure you that it will be a once in a lifetime experience.

There will be a few tears, plenty of laughter and over a dozen adventures but nothing can compare to those little moments of pure magic like when you wake up to the first rays of sunlight gleaming through your frosted window, or when you sleep under the milkyway, or when you have to cheer for your little van as it huffs and puffs it’s way through yet another hill. Along the way you will create memories that will last through your lifetime.

That's how we spent 2 weeks in Middle-Earth and what an absolute adventure we had. New Zealand, here’s to your unparalleled natural elegance and beauty. You are now our all time favorite place. We can’t wait to be back. Ka kite, you wonderful thing

Drop your comments below and show some love. Feel free to shoot me an email with your feedback.

Cheers,

Anki