A friend of mine is on an epic journey. He’s just arrived in New Zealand from Europe. He’s picked up a campervan hire in Auckland and he’s taking it all the way down to Christchurch. Naturally he asked me for advice: where should he stop along the way? I was only too happy to help.
1) The Waitakere Ranges Regional Park
I often tell people the first place you should go in New Zealand (if you’ve landed in Auckland) is the Arataki Visitor Centre. It’s a great place to learn about New Zealand, especially if you’re interested in bush walks – an integral part of the New Zealand experience. The Arataki Visitor Centre is located in the Waitakere Ranges Regional Park, just half an hour’s drive west of the centre of Auckland City. It provides easy access to a multitude of bush walks, short and long; relaxing and challenging. The park also encompasses some fantastic black sand beaches – Muriwai and Bethells are my favourites.
2) The Hamilton Gardens
Hamilton’s an hour or so’s drive south of Auckland. It’s not exactly an impressive city, but it’s one of those places from which you can easily get to other places. And, as you’re passing through, you may as well visit the Hamilton Gardens. They’re actually wonderful – officially amongst the best gardens in the world. If you’re a garden person you should put them on your must-see list.
3) The Waitomo Caves
Waitomo is an hour’s drive south of Hamilton. It’s very touristy, but I had the most magical experience of my life there. The Waitomo Caves are breathtaking. As well as simple tours there are lots of different adventures to go on, including abseiling and tubing – floating down an underground river on a rubber ring. The truly magical thing about Waitomo, though, is its glowworms. Drifting beneath them in that little boat was like being surrounded by tiny, blue stars glittering upon velvet darkness… (That’s the Spellbound Tour – $75 per adult, but so worth it!)
4) The Hobbiton Movie Set
I know I keep going on about the Hobbiton Movie Set, but I really did love it. To call it a movie set is almost misleading – it’s like a real village, living and breathing. The hobbit holes actually meet council standards, so could be used as proper houses! Hobbiton is about three quarters of an hour’s drive east of Hamilton. It’s probably best to visit in summer, when the flowers are at their most glorious and the vivid colours of the round doors at their brightest, but going in winter would make the Green Dragon seem even cosier with its inviting fireplaces.
Rotorua is an hour’s drive south-east of Hobbiton. You want geysers, hot pools, mud pools, spa pools, fascinating history, thrilling adventure and Maori culture? Of course you do! And you don’t have to pay through the nose for it, though many places in Rotorua will try to make you do so. It’s about knowing where to go. Start with Kuirau Park – it’s free – and definitely check out How to Do Rotorua on the Cheap.
An hour’s drive south of Rotorua you’ll come to Taupo, a resort town on the edge of an enormous crater lake. Hot springs abound and exciting water sports are at your fingertips. I recommend jet boating – it was invented in New Zealand after all. I also recommend a walk around the Craters of the Moon…
7) Tongariro National Park
Volcanoes. Epic volcanoes. The Tongariro National Park is about an hour’s drive south of Taupo. It doubled for Mordor in The Lord of the Rings, but it’s not ugly and oppressive in real life. It’s beautiful. Camping there is quite something, especially with all the bats, and the walks are amazing. The Tongariro Alpine Crossing is the most famous, but it takes at least seven hours. For a good two-hour walk you could try the Taranaki Falls Track – you get to see one of the most beautiful waterfalls in the country as well good views of the volcanoes, Ruapehu, Ngauruhoe and Tongariro.
Four to five hour’s drive south of Tongariro we come to New Zealand’s capital city, Wellington. It’s from here that you’ll take your campervan on a ferry across Cook Strait to get to the South Island, but you should hang around a bit first. Wellington’s an unusual city, surrounded by forested hills. Walk around the harbour, visit Te Papa and Weta Workshop, and climb Mount Victoria for some fabulous views.
9) The Marlborough Sounds
At the top of the South Island are the beautiful Marlborough Sounds. They always make me think of New Zealand wine and dolphins. What I really want to do is go kayaking on the Pelorus River. That’s where they filmed the barrel ride from the second Hobbit film. (Even if you think the Hobbit films were a major disappointment compared to the Lord of the Rings films, you can’t fault the stunning nature of the New Zealand scenery.) Plus, if you’re in a campervan, there’s a fantastic campground at Pelorus Bridge – make sure you book ahead.
Two hours or so south of Marlborough we come to Kaikoura, the whale-watching capital of New Zealand. (On the way there’s a great place to spend the night for free if you’re in a self-contained campervan, right on the edge of the sea and practically on top of a colony of seals – Paparoa Point.) Kaikoura’s famous for its mouth-watering crayfish – the name Kaikoura actually means ‘meal of crayfish’ in Maori – and for its amazing marine encounters. You can swim with dolphins and kayak with whales, and if you look back towards the shore you’ll see a backdrop of snow-capped mountains.
11) Arthur’s Pass
Arthur’s Pass is the name of a national park, a mountain pass and a village nestled within the Southern Alps. When my family was on a South Island campervan tour years ago, my dad wanted to get a photograph of someone standing in front of one of the signs, covering the P. I can’t remember whether we actually did this as the scenery was more than a little distracting. Four hours south-west of Kaikoura, Arthur’s Pass is a gateway to many wonderful walks. It’s also the perfect place to encounter kea, the most intelligent birds in the world and New Zealand’s cheekiest natives.
12) Christchurch and Beyond
Christchurch is about two hour’s drive south-east of Arthur’s Pass. There’s so much to do around the city. Visit the Botanic Gardens and the see the awesome splendour of the Waimakariri River. Or the Rakaia River. Or both! Go up Banks Peninsula and spend a night or two in Akaroa – it’s the only place in the world where you can swim with the Hector’s dolphins, which are so cute! If you drive three hours south you’ll come to Oamaru, which used to be famous for just penguins, but now it’s got penguins AND a cool steampunk thing going on.
Well anyway I don’t know how many of these suggestions my friend will follow. The best places are always the ones you discover for yourself. That’s the beauty of campervan travel: you can go where you want when you want, following whims. I wonder what new places my friend will discover. He’s been to New Zealand before – we met at a larping convention in Auckland two years ago and, last year, my boyfriend and I stayed with him for one night on our European tour. Actually, I interviewed him about his time in New Zealand on this blog. (See Interview with the Larper.) He said he’d be back and this time he’s brought his girlfriend.
Seriously, though, you have to stop coming in winter!