THIS GUIDE WILL INCLUDE:
- Costs of our van
- Itinerary of our journey
- Complete packing list
- Epic places to see
Harrison and I flew to New Zealand on September 4, 2018, with a one-way ticket. Our intention was to get away from America for a bit- who knew we would end up getting a one-year visa to live in New Zealand?! What a dream! Our journey began when we landed in Auckland. Our first goal was to start searching for a van to buy so we could road-trip. We learned that most vans in Auckland are more expensive as that’s where most backpackers land, so we searched Facebook and found a few on the South Island in Christchurch. So we booked a ticket and flew to Christchurch!
We scoped out a handful of vans and ended up buying a 1994 Nissan Homy Van. We were a bit hesitant about buying such an old van, but it’s normal in New Zealand to buy an old van, then sell it when you’re done! We drove it to Dunedin to do some WWOOFing (organic work on a farm in exchange for free accommodation and food) so we could finish the build. It was already “self-contained” when we bought it but we decided to add a little fold-down kitchen table, bookshelf, and extra shelving by the sink. We also put in a second battery with an inverter to charge our laptops, cameras, phones, etc. After spending 3 weeks working on a farm and building our van in Dunedin, we set off for our trip around the South Island! We had no plans, just an open road ahead. We have been asked so many questions about this trip (how much we have spent, how much is needed to buy a van, etc.) so we hope this post helps you tremendously while planning your dreamy trip to New Zealand while on a budget! What we are going to share has only been learned through months of traveling and gaining advice from personal experience and other travelers along the road. And if you happen to find yourself traveling to New Zealand, remember that van life is the way to go if you’re keen on an epic adventure. 😝
P.S. The word “keen” wasn’t in our vocabulary until we visited – we love this word! As always, please practice Leave No Trace ethics and embrace the Tiaki Promise on your adventures.
IMPORTANT THINGS TO KNOW WHEN TRAVELING TO NZ:
- Traveling through the summer time (December – February) is way busier than the off-season months (June-August) and a little more expensive. New Zealand’s climate is mild and ranges from subtropical in the north to temperate in the south. No matter the season, the majority of the main attractions are open year-round and let’s be real, it’s always a beautiful time to visit during any season.
- Traveling to both islands in a camper van is the best way to explore and get an epic adventure in!
- Join all the “New Zealand Backpacker” Groups to learn things, connect with others, and ask people any questions you may have along the way.
- Buy a SIM card! After going through 3 different carriers and having technical difficulties, we settled with Skinny which is the cheapest and most reliable!
- You CAN drink the tap water so bring your own reusable bottle to avoid buying plastic!
- Freedom camping is accessible in many areas if you have a self-contained vehicle. Click here for more information you need to know about freedom camping.
- Download the CamperMate app to help you find the best camp spots whether it be paid campsites or freedom camp spots. We found this app extremely helpful! Download here.
- Pack for every season, the weather is unpredictable. Hot and sunny days, cold at night, rainy afternoons. Each day is different!
- There are heaps of sandflies so invest in some natural bug spray. Sandflies are my archenemies.
- Don’t underestimate the sun and wear protection! There is less ozone here to block the UV rays so it causes easy sunburn even though it may not seem strong.
- A new Tourist Tax was implemented in 2019. $35NZ for all tourists entering the country. More info here.
- Respect the Maori culture.
- Observe wildlife from a distance and give them their space. Also do not feed them.
- Leave no litter behind- dump your waste responsibly.
WHY TRAVEL IN A CAMPER VAN:
- You have a lot more freedom as to where you want to go and how long you want to stay. We got to see places that we would in no way had the opportunity to see if we stayed in a hotel or taken public transport.
- Save money on accommodation through free camping- we used an app called Campermate.
- Being able to wake up somewhere new each day.
- Save money on food by cooking meals.
- You aren’t connected to WiFi much so it enables you to dive deep into yourself in your free time! Reading, writing, editing photos, playing music, getting out in nature, etc.
- You meet other rad van dwellers and humans from all walks of life. Take interest in people’s lives. You may learn a thing or two.
- You learn to live with less and only have things that you truly need
- You stop taking things for granted. As you venture through your van life adventure, you’ll soon realize how you used to sometimes take things for granted. Little things like a shower or having clean clothes. Or like when the kettle boils, after sitting on the portable, gas-top stove for nearly half an hour. These simple life pleasures are usually and so easily taken for granted, but when you’re living in a van, you value every little thing.
Where can you buy a van?
Facebook! There are numerous “New Zealand Camper van” groups that have heaps of people selling their vans for a decent price. Renting nicer vans is an option but if you’re staying for more than a month, I would recommend buying a van and then selling it! Chances are you’ll make your money back instead of renting.
We bought ours for about $5,000 NZD (around $3,000 USD) and we put around $1,500 into fixing it up. We installed a second battery with an inverter so we could charge our phones, camera, laptops, and drone. We cut and sewed our own curtains and hung them up (that was actually really fun and I found a new hobby: sewing). And we also added more woodwork for shelving to store our things! Another thing that’s important when traveling around New Zealand is making sure your van is self-contained. To be self-contained your vehicle must have a toilet, fresh water storage, wastewater storage, and a rubbish bin with a lid.
What is Freedom Camping?
Freedom camping is when you camp on public land that isn’t recognized as a camping ground or holiday park. You can camp in more of these places only if your vehicle is fully self-contained. Fully self-contained vehicles are for the protection of these places and the environment from waste and rubbish. You can find more information about the rules of freedom camping here and here. Navigation: We used Google Maps but I’ve also heard Maps Me is really efficient!
The Road Trip
We never found the words to describe the place within our hearts that New Zealand touches.
If there’s one thing we learned through traveling, it is that we quickly come to see that while land and sea, circumstance and culture, might separate us, we are all more intimately connected than we may realize. We’re even connected to the nature around us. We see through conversation and the meeting of strangers that each thread of the giant tapestry is woven closely to another and that each thread is connected to the greater whole… we are all One. Travel teaches us a universal language. It teaches us simplicity and love.
Map of our route:
1st Stop: KAIKOURA
Kaikoura is a gem of a town on the east coast of the South Island. It reminds me of Hawaii in a way. It’s a gorgeous beach town surrounded by mountains. Supposedly this place is great for whale watching although we didn’t see any!
Be sure to make pit stops in Dunedin and Christchurch on your way down to the Catlins! Super cool towns!
2nd Stop: THE CATLINS
The Catlins is a beautiful stretch of coast between Balclutha and Invercargill. We realized how pure and ancient the air is here as we drove the windy roads of this coastline. The ocean scent wafted from the waves across to the mountainsides. The sound of birds singing and chirping. The sheep grazing on the greenest grass you’ve ever seen. Driving through the roads of NZ is quite the most peaceful thing I’ve ever experienced. Our first couple of stops made my heart beat with excitement for everything that was to come. The Catlins is absolutely gorgeous and if you have the extra time, we heard Stewart Island is a great place to go to! It’s 30 kilometers (19 miles) south and a quick ferry or flight over to the island from Invercargill.
The Catlins. Nugget Point Lighthouse, South Island, New Zealand
In the haze of a New Zealand morning, a rising sun painted the sky with golden hues and lit up the beautiful lighthouse that sits perched up Nugget Point. This place is one of the most iconic stops on the Otago Coast. After immersing ourselves in the beauty of the coast that so reminds us of Big Sur California, getting yelled at for flying our drone, and waking up to the sound of waves crashing against the sand- we headed west to see the 3 waterfalls in the Catlins before heading off to Queenstown.
Purakaunui Falls: 20-minute walk
Matai Falls: 25-minute walk
McLean Falls: 40-minute walk
Miles and miles of road filled with grassy hills, snow-capped mountains, and beautiful lakes. The concept of time as we experience them in our everyday lives doesn’t exist on the road. The routine that generally defines our existence fades into the rearview mirror with each passing mile.
There is no wrong direction. Go where feels good 🙂
3rd Stop: QUEENSTOWN
Queenstown is an action-packed town filled with snow-capped mountains and a great vibe. We were also excited to see some of our friends from California who now live and work in Queenstown! We were lucky enough to fly on a helicopter ride with a snow landing with Heli Tours Queenstown which was absolutely unreal! It was Alyssa’s first helicopter experience and it totally exceeded our expectations! You can see the video of our flight on our YouTube here!!
4th Stop: MILFORD SOUND
Acclaimed as New Zealand’s most famous tourist destination, we knew we had to go here. Milford Sound is a fiord in the southwest of the South Island within Fiordland National Park. Once you get there, a world of blissful scenery awaits you, with so many unmissable photo opportunities. We also must mention, the infamous Kea birds roam around the Fiordlands. We are sure you’ll see one of these majestic parrots hanging out but remember, don’t feed them!
BEFORE YOU GO:
- It’s a very, very remote place with zero cell service.
- There are no petrol stations between Te Anau and Milford Sound. Get gas beforehand, the closest town isn’t close.
- The parking at Milford Sound fills up very quickly but our rule: if you see a cone, scootch it over a little and park there.
- It’s still amazing to see when the weather isn’t perfect! When it rains, it forms really cool clouds throughout the cliffs and has a magical vibe.
- Milford Sound is one of the wettest places in the world which creates the most beautiful waterfalls that cascade down the cliffs
THE TOUR WE WENT ON: We took the 2-hour scenic tour from Cruise Milford Sound which we loved!
HOW TO GET THERE: If you’re planning a day trip to Milford Sound, you have the option of reaching the area by car, plane, or helicopter. If you go by car, you’ll drive from the closest town called Te Anau. At just 240km (144 miles) long, the drive from Te Anau to Milford Sound is a scenic route that offers plenty of opportunities for sightseeing, one being “The Chasm Walk” which is my favorite.
Look on CamperMate for different options on where to camp! Funny story- we picked up a hitchhiker that ended up working the boat tour in Milford Sound so she was living in work accommodation and let us park our van in their parking lot for the night. She also let us use her shower and cook in the kitchen, which is heavenly when you’re doing van life and haven’t showered in days. Good karma all around!
Next time, we would love to see Milford Sound from a plane or helicopter!
5th Stop: DOUBTFUL SOUND
Coming from Milford Sound, it’ll take you about a two-hour drive to Manapouri, where you board a 1-hour boat ride across Lake Manapouri, then hop on a bus for another hour until you’ve arrived in one of the remotest parts of New Zealand – you’ll find yourself in the middle of Fiordland National Park in the beautiful Doubtful Sound. It is surrounded by the most insane fiords and jaw-dropping waterfalls. It was one of our favorite places along our road trip 🙂
TOUR: We actually won tickets from a giveaway on Instagram to do an all-day cruise with Go Orange! The tour lasts for about 7 hours and departs from Manapouri. The cruise was absolutely amazing and allowed us to see and learn so much about history and nature. We also can’t forget to mention… we saw dolphins and penguins during our cruise! It was MAGICAL! Fun fact: Adult females give birth to one baby dolphin every two to four years. In Fiordland, these births are seasonal, typically during summer and spring only.
OTHER TOUR OPTIONS AT DOUBTFUL SOUND TO CONSIDER ARE:
- Scenic Flight and Cruise
- Kayaking and Camping Trips
- Full-day Fiordland National Park Tour and Cruise
- Hiking Guided tour
- Scuba Diving
Hey, we know Doubtful Sound is REALLY far, but we promise it’s 100% worth the drive!
6th Stop: WANAKA
Things to do in Wanaka:
- Go for a stroll through the Wanaka Lavender Farm (season dependent) and enjoy a nice cup of herbal tea or lavender ice cream.
- Thrifting at Waste Busters- the biggest thrift store we’ve ever been to! They’re also super passionate about leading a zero-waste life which we absolutely love!
- Hike Roys Peak. We heard Roys Peak is a MUST so we decided to check out the hype. It is one of New Zealand’s most popular hikes due to the epic views of Lake Wanaka and the surrounding mountains. We recommend doing the hike as early as possible (before sunrise) as the track can become really crowded really quickly. If it’s rainy or cloudy, we recommend skipping the hike and trying it on a different day when it’s sunny.
DISCLOSURE: This is a gnarly, 16km trek! We went into this hike not knowing much and definitely not prepared. It is about a 6-hour hike, straight up a mountain, switchbacks the whole time, and straight back down. Super brutal on the body if you’re not an avid hiker. Bring lots of water. Bring plenty of food to eat (We definitely didn’t bring enough food). Bring toilet paper because the toilets don’t have any. Wear the most comfortable shoes you own that won’t give you blisters. And you should be set! The view from the top is freaking stunning though and totally rewarding. If I ever hike this again, I’ll be paragliding down! You can find out more information about Roy’s Peak Hike here.
- See the famous Wanaka Tree #thatwanakatree 🙂 We wanted to see it during the day and also at night- thanks to Instagram giving us inspiration. We woke up at 1 am, packed our camera bag, and journeyed out to the tree! It was pitch black but we finally found the spot and set up the tripod and camera. The stars were insanely epic and we got a beautiful shot of the tree at night!
7th Stop: MT. COOK
The highest mountain in New Zealand! Surrounded by glistening blue water. A drive to the South Island isn’t complete without seeing the infamous Aoraki / Mount Cook. This drive will take your breath away. Unfortunately, it was cloudy and rainy when we drove by but it’s definitely a must on your road trip!
8th Stop: LAKE TEKAPO
One of the most beautiful lakes our eyes have seen! The lake is fed by the Godley River which has its source from the Southern Alps making the water a turquoise blue color. In season, the lake is surrounded by stunning purple and pink Lupine Flowers! Lake Tekapo is near Mount Cook so it makes it easy to quickly stop by and check it out.
9th Stop: PUNAKAIKI
Right off the 6, located on the west coast of the South Island, is a little place called Punakaiki. We wanted to stop and see the famous Pancake Rocks and Blowholes. They have formed 30 million years ago. Mildly acidic rain, immense wind, and seawater sculpted the bizarre yet beautiful shapes of limestone.
10th & Final Stop: ABEL TASMAN
The Nelson Tasman region is the sunniest place in New Zealand and has 4 main centers: Motueka, Abel Tasman National Park, Takaka, Golden Bay, and Kaiteriteri. It’s about 35 minutes from Nelson. There’s a town about 15 minutes away from Motueka called “Mapua” which means abundance in the Maori language, which we thought was pretty special. We first heard about the beauty of Abel Tasman while we were living in California so we were really excited to check this place out. We had to make it up there by Labor Day weekend to film the event Lift Off Abel Tasman, which you can find in our video here. As soon as we drove into Motueka, a small town in Abel Tasman, we knew that’s where we were going to stay for a while. Organic cafes, crystal shops, skydiving over mountains and ocean, what more could we ask for?! This town reminded us of San Diego but was a bit more peaceful and laid back. Definitely no traffic! The Nelson Tasman region offers a lifestyle that is vibrant, artsy, and has beaches full of golden sand. It’s a true gem.
Things to do in Abel Tasman:
Kayak through Abel Tasman National Park and see the infamous Split Apple Rock
Jump out of a plane at Skydive Abel Tasman
Have a beach day at Kaiteriteri
Take a stroll through the Sunday Farmers Market in Motueka
If you have any questions please feel free to ask! We hope this will help you on your adventures!
“Man is the conscious mind of Mother Earth and plays a vital part in the regulation of her life support systems and man’s duty is to enhance and sustain those systems” – Rev Maori Marsden & Te Aroha Henare
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