New Zealand – Discovering Middle Earth

New Zealand – Discovering Middle Earth

My post-bar trip in 2010 also included 2 weeks in New Zealand. During that trip I was part of a group tour which bussed us around both islands, starting in Auckland and ending in Queenstown. While it was an amazing trip with a good group of people, I feel that New Zealand is a country best explored on your own and without a strict itinerary. That’s one of the reasons I was so excited to return to Middle-Earth and adventure out on our own. This time we took the opposite route, starting in the South island and making our way north, this time in our rented campervan. New Zealand is situated some 2,000 kilometers (1,200 mi) east of Australia across the Tasman Sea. Because of its remoteness, it was one of the last lands to be settled by humans. New Zealand ranks highly in international comparisons of national performance, such as quality of life, health, education, protection of civil liberties, and economic freedom. The country's diverse scenery and compact size, plus government incentives, have encouraged some producers to shoot big-budget productions in New Zealand, in addition to The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit movies, The Chronicles of Narnia, Avatar, King Kong and The Last Samurai were also filmed in New Zealand.

Day 366 – 30-Apr-2017 Melbourne > Queenstown

Our Flight left on time and was supposed to be only 4 hours from Melbourne  arriving at 11:30AM but there were high winds so they had so detour to Christchurch. After about an hour on the tarmac, the plane finally left to head back to Queenstown arriving at 14:30. We were a little worried because we were supposed to pick up our Jucy Campervan at 12:30. It was freezing and drizzling when we got to Queenstown and picked up our camper, luckily we didn’t lose our reservation or anything. We drove straight to the grocery store and then to our campsite outside of Queenstown. Free campsites are a little harder to find in New Zealand than Australia and aren’t as nice, the campsite was really just a dirt road turnoff from the highway outside of Queenstown. Once we found a parking spot, we just made dinner and slept early.


Day 367 –1-May-2017 Queenstown

Next morning we made breakfast and had to go back to the store for dish soap to clean up our dishes. Then we needed to gear up for the cold so we found a Salvation Army thrift store and bought gloves, hats, socks, and boots. After, we went into town and walked around. Had lunch at the famous Fergburger and then walked around a bit more. Around 15:30, we drove to our next campsite in Lumsden so we could be closer to Milford Sound for our tours the next day. We were pleasantly surprised that it was a large lot with clean bathrooms and Wi-Fi from the library across the street.

Milford Sound Waterfall

just a regular stop along the way

Day 368 – Queenstown > Te Anau. We woke up early and started driving towards Te Anau. We found a place there for hot showers ($5 for 8 mins for two people). It was very nice pressure and 8 mins was plenty for both of us. We made breakfast and then started driving towards Milford Sound. Milford Sound is a fjord in the Southwest part of the South Island and is acclaimed as New Zealand's most famous tourist destination. The scenery on the drive was beautiful so we stopped at various viewpoints along the way but the weather wasn't great so we didn't stay long and skipped a few. Our cruise started at 13:20 with the Jucy boat and it was a nice cruise along the fjord but really cold. The boat pulled up really close to a waterfall which was cool. It lasted 1.5 hrs and then we were back. We made a quick late lunch in the parking lot and then drove back to Te Anau for our 20:00 glowworm tour. We arrived in town at 17:30 so had time to make dinner and check the internet (we bought a Spark SIM card for New Zealand which  includes a free 1gb per day at certain Wi-Fi spots). The glowworm tour lasted for 2 hrs and was pretty neat seeing all them in the dark and included a nice boat ride in the cave. Unfortunately you’re not allowed to bring a camera and pictures probably wouldn’t show up well anyway, but it was pretty cool just being in the cave and seeing all the glowworms like little stars in the dark. After, we drove back to our campsite in Lumsden and we arrived around 23:30. We were pretty tired so we just checked email and went to bed.

Day 369 –Te Anau > Pukaki.

We woke up early and checked email and mapped out our next stop. We also picked up some more groceries from the local market across the street. For the drive, we took highway 6 all the way and stopped at Gibbston Valley Cheese outside of Queenstown for free cheese tasting. Then drove to Cronwell for more Internet and a break for lunch. After, we continued to Pukaki Lake for the night. We were originally going to hike Roy's Peak first before seeing other parts of the south island, but the weather forecast looked better the next day so decided to come back and do the hike later. The campsite at Lake Pukaki was right up next to the lake but it was a rough gravel road to the edge of the lake where the carpark was. At the head of Lake Pukaki, New Zealand's highest peak Aoraki Mt Cook stands tall. The site had beautiful scenery but it was cold and we were tired so Diem made dinner and we went to bed.

Day 370 – Pukaki > Tekapo > Tasman Glacier.

Today, we woke up early for the sunrise off the lake and mountains and it was super cold but gorgeous. Diem made breakfast and we drove to Tekapo, a small town located at the southern end of the lake. Lake Tekapo is part of a UNESCO Dark Sky Reserve, making it the perfect spot for stargazing, unfortunately, we didn’t know that at the time and our visit was during the day. The sun was really bright and at the wrong angle so we didn't get a good picture of the lake but take our word for it, it was pretty. We didn't stay long and essentially made a U-turn and drove to Hunter Valley. Hunter Valley Station sits on The Neck, an epic strip of land that separates lakes Hāwea and Wanaka, by just a kilometer at the narrowest point. We stopped at the station and decide to walk the 3 hour return trail to Hunter Valley Glacier. It was cold and the glacier was covered in dirt but there were little floating glaciers so that was cool. After, we drove to Tasman Glacier and made a late lunch. Then walked 700m up some stairs to the glacier viewpoint. The sun was starting to set and the glacier wasn't quite as impressive. May isn’t the best time to view the glaciers since it’s just after their summer and a lot of the snow has melted. Next, we drove to our campsite in Luggate, a town just East of Wanaka for a hot shower ($5 pp) and to be close to Roy's Peak trail for the hike the next morning.

Day 371 – Roy's Peak > Fox Glacier & Franz Josef.

Top of the world (Roy's Peak)

We had an early breakfast and then started toward the hike’s starting point just West of Wanaka. Roy’s Peak is a mountain in New Zealand, standing between Wanaka and Glendhu Bay. It offers a full-day walk, with views across Lake Wanaka and up to the peak of Mount Aspiring/Tititea. The hike has a nice clear path that zigzags steeply up the side of Mount Roy, it isn’t too difficult but it is a long hike. Other travelers walked with us along the way and we had a nice sunny day which warmed us up despite the low temperature. The peak of Roy’s peak is really spectacular and offers panoramic views of the mountains and surrounding lakes. We had to wait a little bit for some people to clear out and a couple of hikers were really annoying and taking forever to take pictures, had to get that perfect Instagram shot. After the hike, we started the drive towards Fox Glacier via Haast Pass and stopped at Hawea Lake for a quick picture. We arrived at Fox Glacier around 2pm and it took us 1.5 hours return including picture time. The glacier had receded and wasn't as impressive as when I saw it in 2011. The path to the glacier is lined with posts indicating that the glacier reached those points 10-60 years ago. It was definitely sad to see how much it melted even in the 6 years since I had last seen it. Next, we drove to Franz Josef glacier nearby and it took us 2 hours walking roundtrip, including picture time. This one was the prettier one but was also receding. After, we made dinner at the parking lot and drove to a carpark nearby.

Roy's Peak 2

Day 373 – Glacier > Pearson Lake via Arthur's Pass

Lake Pearson

We ate breakfast and drove to Hokitika Gorge. It was a short walk from the carpark and we had the place to ourselves for a while. The walk had nice views of the fantastic blue-green waters of the Hokitika River as it makes its way through the rock sided Hokitika Gorge. The river was pretty full and the waterfall at the end was pretty strong and pretty. It was a nice way to start the day, then wee drove to Greymouth for shower at Wicked Spin laundromat ($2 for 4 mins). We shared a shower and drove to the nearby library for Wi-Fi. The library was closed so we made lunch in the parking lot. Then we drove to find Wi-Fi elsewhere and ended up at The Warehouse down the road. Next drove through Arthur's Pass and stopped briefly in the village to check email. After, we drove to Pearson Lake, made dinner, and went to bed.

Not a bad sleep spot

Day 374 8-May-2017 Pearson Lake > Christchurch

Lake Pearson is a large and attractive hourglass shaped Lake located in the High Country of the South Island.  It is reached by travelling along State Highway 73 and has easy access for any vehicle.  Combined with State Highway 73 being a popular tourist route and the camping and toilet facilities available this lake gets many visitors. Lake Pearson was mostly a stopping point for us on our way to Christchurch. It is pretty much smack dab in the middle of the South Island and provides a very scenic drive for anyone making their way from the from the west side of the South Island to the east side. The campsite was located in a nicely groomed area alongside the lake. Snowcapped mountains circle the campsite and it was one of our nicer stays on the trip. We woke up with the sunrise and sound of other campers getting ready for their drive. DM made it very nice breakfast and we got on the West Coast Rd. of Lake Pearson, Highway 73. The weather was getting better so it was a nice sunny day for our drive to to Christchurch. We got into Christchurch around lunchtime. Christchurch is the largest city in the South Island of New Zealand. It is also the third most populous city behind Auckland and Wellington. The city suffered a series of earthquakes between September 2010 and early 2012, with the most destructive of them occurring at 12.51 p.m. on Tuesday, 22 February 2011, in which 185 people were killed and thousands of buildings across the city collapsed or suffered severe damage. By late 2013, 1,500 buildings in the city had been demolished, leading to an ongoing recovery and rebuilding projects still going on today. We had lunch in the city and made our way to our campsite to check it out. We decided to drive up one of the hills around Christchurch that had a Washington Monument-like looking structure at the top. It was a beautiful green, lush Hill and it was littered with white sheep eating the grass. We stopped to take up couple pictures and then made our way back down.


Day 375

9-May-2017 Christchurch


For our first full day in Christchurch we had some competing interests. Christchurch has a number of day trips for the Lord of the rings fans as well as shops around town. However, Diem isn’t a huge Lord of the rings fan so we decided against it. We tried to ride the Christchurch gondola up the hill along the south side of Christchurch, however, it was too windy and they weren’t selling tickets for the gondola. So instead we decide to check out the botanical gardens. We were feeling pretty tired today so it was a short day and we went back to the campsite, Diem made dinner dinner and we took a rest.

Day 376 10-May-2017 Christchurch

Today was a rainy day so we found a local library and coffee shop where we just use the Internet and chilled out.

Day 377 11-May-2017 Christchurch > Kaikoura

Point Kean

Today we got back on the road and headed north along the south island’s East Coast Hwy. 1. It was about a 3 hour Dr. to Kaikoura, our next stop. Kaikoura is a coastal town on the South Island of New Zealand. It’s known for its abundant wildlife and its sperm whale population. The Kaikoura Peninsula Walkway winds from the town centre to lookout points at Point Kean. We made our way to one of those lookout points and took in the view. Unfortunately, we weren’t there during the sperm whale migration time. After walking around the lookout points for about an hour we made our way back to our van into the campsite.

378 12-May-2017 Kaikoura > Picton via Blenheim Wine Region

Unfortunately, there is no way to drive from the South Island to the North Island. However, there are a number of ferries that will take you in your car over the Cook Strait to the North Island. We were picking up our ferry from Picton along the northern tip of the South Island. Before we made our way to the North Island, we decided to enjoy one more day in the South and explore the wine region around Picton. We booked a half-day wine tour around the Marlborough wine region. The Marlborough wine region is known for its crisp white wines. We visited two wineries and had their tastings. It was a nice relaxing day and it felt good not to drive for once.

Day 379 13-May-2017 Picton > Wellington

Today, we drove our Jucy campervan onto the ferry for our ride to Wellington. The ferry ride lasts almost 4 hours but it is a very scenic ride and the time flew by.

Day 380 14-May-2017 Wellington

Wellington, the capital of New Zealand, sits near the North Island’s southernmost point on the Cook Strait. A compact city, it encompasses a waterfront promenade, sandy beaches, a working harbor and colorful timber houses on surrounding hills. Strong winds through the Cook Strait give it the nickname "Windy Wellington." Wellington is the second-most populous city in New Zealand, behind Auckland. Wellington's attractive waterfront is best explored on foot, from Queens Wharf around the harbour through to the golden shores of Oriental Bay. The iconic Wellington cable car runs up to the botanic gardens and lookout - from there you can stroll back down to the city centre through native bush and greenery. Walk, drive or bus up Mount Victoria, where you can watch the sun set over the city. Our time in Wellington was relatively brief but we did make our way up to the cable car and botanical gardens.



Day 381

15-May-2017 Wellington > Auckland via Corromandel

In Wellington we said goodbye to our Jucy campervan in favor of a much cheaper sedan for the last leg of our time in New Zealand. We were doing a car relocation so only have to pay one dollar a day for the car rental and were given a free tank of gas. The drive from Wellington to Auckland is about eight hours and 20 minutes. We decide stop a little bit more than halfway at the town of Taupo after about six hours of driving. The drive got off to a bad start because after about an hour, I was pulled over by a policeman for speeding while I was passing an old, slow bus on the highway. Taupo is located at the outlet of Lake Taupo, New Zealand's largest lake, in the northeast part of the lake where it discharges to the Waikato River. The river flows over the spectacular Huka Falls, a short distance north of the town. Along the way we stopped at Mount Ngauruhoe 25 kilometres to the south of the southern shore of Lake Taupo. Mount Ngauruhoe was used as a stand-in for Mount Doom in the Lord of the rings movies. I was pretty tired after the drive so we checked into our Airbnb and went to bed.


Day 382 16-May-2017 Auckland


The next day we stopped by Huka falls and took some pictures.

Huka Falls

The falls weren’t very high but there was a lot of water going through the river and it was a beautiful sunny day, so it worked out nice. It was a relatively short drive to Auckland but we were anxious to get there. We arrived around noon, checked into our Airbnb, and went out for lunch.


Day 383 17-May-2017 Auckland > Buenos Aires

Our flight to Buenos Aires was at 8 PM but we were in the mood for exploring much of Auckland today. We spent most of the day returning our car and packing for the 12 hour flight.


Even though New Zealand is a relatively small country, you probably will feel like you don’t have time to explore it all. I highly recommend you embracing the campervan life at some point during your stay.

See the full gallery of our time in New Zealand here: New Zealand.

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Paul is a lawyer taking a mid-career break focused on capturing all his adventures during his yearlong honeymoon around the world.

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