Car-camping New Zealand’s South Island

Wine in the Marlborough region, disappearing glaciers, idyllic towns, blue rivers, and icy pools, optical illusions, fjords, and bungy jumping, all on a tight-budget road trip, splurging only when it truly mattered
New Zealand Milford Sound

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We traversed New Zealand from North to South. You can find the North Island story by clicking here. Our New Zealand’s South Island car-camping adventure started without a car, and even without camping.

Car-camping New Zealand's South Island

“I always get to where I’m going by walking away from where I’ve been.”

– Winnie The Pooh

At home in Blenheim, Havelock mussels, River from The Hobbit and Coffee at the Hospital

As we disembarked the ferry that took us from Wellington to Picton, one of my dearest friends picked us up and whisked us off to her home in Blenheim, a part of New Zealand’s famous wine-making region of Marlborough, where she lives with her hubby and two beautiful kids. We spent a lot of time together in England, Spain, the US, and Slovakia but this was my first time on her home turf.

There’s nothing quite like staying with locals, especially when they’re utterly marvelous people. Together, we fried whitebait, grilled lamb, and shared a pot of Slovak goulash. We picked fruit off the trees in their garden and attended a birthday party for their kids’ little friend. We jumped on a trampoline and enjoyed our morning coffee on their lovely patio joined by Savvy the cuddly cat. We met their friends, took day trips, had a glimpse of the past at the Brayshaw Heritage Park, and, of course, tasted wine in Marlborough’s world-famous vineyards.

We feasted on green mussels in Havelock, “the mussel capital of the world”. The whole pot cost about $20 NZD, in a cute, al-fresco restaurant. They were giant and almost too beautiful to eat… almost.

We were really tickled swimming in the Pelorus river where, in the second Hobbit movie, the Dwarves took their wild barrel ride. The water was so clear that when I looked down at Mark’s feet, I could see his toe hairs swaying in the stream 🙂

We even got to see the (amazing) quality of NZ healthcare, when my friend underwent surgery at the local hospital. She had a lovely room with a big patio leading into a lush garden, she got a varied menu to choose her food from and we were treated to a beautiful coffee service when we came to visit. (Of course she got better quickly under such lovely care.)

Our visit with friends came to a close, but our car camping adventure of New Zealand’s South Island had begun. Once again, we slept (surprisingly well) in a car, bathed in rivers (but only used soap and shampoo in public bathrooms and showers), got our food at local markets, and set up picnics wherever we liked.

We stopped often because you can’t just drive by a view like that. We experienced first-hand how Cape Foulwind got its name, got sprayed by the blow holes at Pancake Rocks, hiked to the disappearing Franz Josef Glacier, and filled our water bottles to the brim from a glacial waterfall. We got creative at a driftwood-statue-covered beach in the artsy little town of Hokitika and stared in disbelief into the milky blueness of the glacial Whataroa river.

Magical Lake Matheson, Icy Blue Pools, Wanaka, Cardrona (and Bradrona)

Half an hour ride from Franz Josef Glazier is Lake Matheson. You’re supposed to see the whole mountain range mirrored on its quiet surface but when we got to the “View of Views”, all we saw were the little circles raindrops made as they landed on the water. Still, the hike around the lake was spectacular.

You feel like you’ve landed in a fairytale. Dewy mosses, tiny mushrooms, and ferns tall enough to stand under make you believe that if you stayed till after dark, you might just see gnomes hanging lanterns in the meadow for an evening shindig. But the road beckoned, so after a little rest at the Matheson Café, were on our way.

The impenetrably thick wall of greenery that flanks the road to Haast is interrupted by impressive views of turquoise rivers, waterfalls, and mountain ranges. To get to the Blue Pools, you walk through a forest and cross a swing bridge. Then you can dive into the pristine, icy-cold, snow-melt pools of the Makarora river. If you’re like Mark, that is. For the rest of us, testing the waters with one toe is thrilling enough.

You might have seen a photo of the famous little tree that grows off of the shore of Wanaka lake. It must have been one of the most photographed trees until some doofus vandalized it a couple of years back, cutting off its iconic lower branches. We visited before that so in our picture, it’s still in its former glory.

If you’re an outdoorsy type, there’s so much kayaking, swimming, biking, skiing, and hiking in Wanaka that you can never get bored. And for a little man-made fun, there’s Puzzling World with games, optical illusions, trickery, and an outdoor maze. My favorite part – you get to touch everything.

On the way to check out the famous Cardrona Hotel and Distillery, we came across a fence of bras named Bradrona, to draw attention to breast cancer. I wrote a dedication to the ladies I’ve known and loved with breast cancer on my bra before it joined the others.

Cardona, built in 1863 and of the Speights (Ale) Better Half ad fame turned out to be a splendid little pub. Cozy inside, with good beer, spacious garden seating, and stone cottages all around that serve as accommodation. After a beer and a chat, we drove on southwards to the Crown Range Road with the most epic views of the Wakatipu basin.

Arrowtown is almost too perfect

Imagine a beautiful sunny afternoon with a cool breeze playing in your hair. You get to the cutest little town you’ve ever seen (apart from Hobbiton). Smiling people bike, walk or sit in the front gardens of little restaurants that dot the tree-lined streets. There are red phone booths, beautiful signage on all the well-kept little historic cottages, and flowers growing in every front garden.

The air is filled with the sound of talk, laughter, and clinking glasses. You sit on a rock in Buckingham Gren park obviously designed for town get-togethers. You fill your water bottle from a vintage fountain, grab a bite to eat, walk around, and marvel at the beauty of it all. Well, that’s Arrowtown for you.

In the evening, you drive out and stop at an unassuming dirt parking lot. And then, when you wake up the next morning and get out to stretch your legs, you find yourself at a gorgeous blue river and you realize that you’re staring down at the Kawarau Gorge, just upstream from the spot where the mighty Argonath (Pillars of the Kings) stood in the ‘Fellowship of the Ring’, and also the famous Kawarau Bridge, a site of the first commercial Bungy jump in the world. My mom always said I had more luck than smarts.

Seeing your husband jump off a bridge (no life insurance and you still love him)

I have never seen Mark so happy. Ever. We got to the A.J. Hackett Bungy at Kawarau Gorge Suspension Bridge and seeing people hurtling themselves 43 meters (141 feet) from the bridge towards the river confirmed my suspicion that this is not a thrill for me, whereas Mark was getting more and more excited.

We did a zip-line together, which was fun and not at all scary, and then it was time for Mark to get up on that bridge. He was wearing his pink Millenium Falcon t-shirt, ready for take-off and well visible from the river bank, where I nervously stood with a crowd of spectators.

They strapped him in by the ankles and then, as if he couldn’t wait to meet his maker, he jumped. He HIT the water head first and got dunked up to his waist. (watch the video below)

Mark at A.J. Hackett Kawarau Bungy, 43 meters (141 feet)

I thought something went terribly wrong, but he was visibly alive when the Bungy bounced him up and down a few times, and then a raft came to pick him up. Not just alive, he was beaming. He had asked how to jump in order to hit the water! (hint – don’t push off, fall straight down) If it hadn’t been so pricey, he’d probably still be there, jumping off that bridge.

We then went to celebrate up the road at the Gibbson Valley winery.

Milford Sound boat trip

Milford Sound is a picturesque fjord. We got a package deal with a shuttle bus from Queenstown and a boat tour of the fjord itself. We sat at the very front chatting to the bus driver about his life, New Zealand in general, and Milford Sound in particular.

It is the wettest of all New Zealand’s inhabited regions so we were told to prepare for rain, clouds, and insect bites. Having been on our Vegemite regimen for a month now, we were not worried about the bites and hoped for clear skies. And clear skies we got.

The fjord was lush, the boat ride fun and we still got soaked, but voluntarily, from the waterfalls on the way. We enjoyed it much more than we thought we would for such a touristy activity.

The Chill Queenstown

I can see why people love Queenstown. It’s a chill town with an air of outdoorsiness, a jumping-off point for many adventures, organized and otherwise. It flanks the beautiful lake Wakatipu. The Queenstown Gardens and the Prince Park beg to be strolled. In this walker’s paradise, you can amble by the lake shore or, if you’re so inclined, take the 130-km (80-mile) trail all the way to Gibbston via Arrowtown.

I adore New Zealand. I already want to go back to these magical islands at the bottom of the world.

Have a look at our New Zealand’s North Island adventures here.

Maps of our trip through New Zealand’s North and South Island

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