This seven day itinerary is a great short motorhome road trip from Christchurch, taking in the Aoraki / Mount Cook National Park, some amazing day walks, the mountains of the Southern Alps and several of the gorgeous lakes of the Mackenzie Basin. Add in some star gazing and long soaks in some hot pools, and this really is great way to enjoy a few days out on the road.
To follow this campervan driving itinerary, pick up and return your vehicle at our Christchurch branch. Visit maui campervan hire Christchurch for more details.
Christchurch to Christchurch
Best Time of the Year
- Mount Cook
- Lake Pukaki
- Lake Tekapo
- Lake Ophua
Christchurch to Lake Pukaki
Distance 300km - Driving Time 3.5 hours
After a trip to the supermarket in Christchurch to stock our motorhome with lots of yummy food, we got on the road for the drive to Lake Pukaki. The drive out of Christchurch starts with long, straight roads which are perfect for getting a feel of how your motorhome handles on the road and allowing passengers to sort out the essentials, like connecting to the Bluetooth for some road-trip sounds. As we made our way south from Christchurch, the scenery gave way to rolling hills and, before long, the mountains and tussock covered landscape of the Mackenzie Basin loomed into view. A stop at the Fairly Bakehouse for a famous kiwi pie is all but compulsory! On this drive you will pass through the town of Tekapo, which is a breath-taking spot to stop for a coffee at the lakeshore. Just 40 minutes down the road, you reach Lake Pukaki.
Lake Pukaki is a massive body of aquamarine water, the largest of the Mackenzie lakes. Its turquoise colour is created by fine rock particles that have made their way down river from the glaciers of Aoraki / Mt Cook. The lake is part of the Waitaki hydroelectric power scheme, and at the southern end of the lake, you can view the outlet of the lake as it spills into the Twizel canals. The southern end is also where you can, on a clear day, watch Mt Cook catch the last of the sunlight as the sun sets behind the southern alps.
Where to stay: “The Pines” – Lake Pukaki Freedom Camping spot (free, with toilets). The Pines is a large area for self-contained campervans, with sweeping views out over the lake to the mountains. Park up with your windows to the mountains, so you can enjoy the sunrise the next morning.
Lake Pukaki to Mount Cook
Distance 35km - Driving Time 3.5 hours
The drive from Lake Pukaki to Mt Cook Alpine Village takes around an hour if you can bear to do it without stopping. This is difficult however! This short stretch of road is one of NZ’s finest drives – with looming mountains on your left, and the beautiful waters of Lake Pukaki on your right. Allow extra time for photos, and a short stop at Peter’s Lookout for one of the best views of the lake and mountains. As you drive into the Aoraki / Mt Cook National Park, the imposing size of NZ’s tallest mountain becomes more apparent.
Once you reach the village, a multitude of spectacular day walks awaits. For the fit and energetic, a hike up to Sealy Tarns (2200 steps!) or to Red Tarns gives spectacular views over the park. We instead enjoyed a walk along the most popular track in the park – the walk to Hooker Lake. Touted as one of NZ’s best short walks, the 10km return track (allow 1.5 hours each way) follows the Hooker River through the valley to the Mt Cook’s Hooker Glacier terminal lake. On this walk you will cross the river three times by way of impressive swing bridges, where you can observe the river cascading over massive boulders. You also pass Mueller Lake and Glacier, and follow a board walk over sensitive tussock vegetation. From late winter to early spring, you can see and hear avalanches rumbling down the slopes of Mount Sefton. Reaching the end of the track, the wide view of the lake and Mount Cook will take your breath away. If the lake is partially frozen, skimming stones across the thin layer of ice will produce a surprising melody as the stones bounce along the frozen surface. And if you’re lucky, you may even see or hear Kea, NZ’s cheeky mountain parrot. Spend some time exploring the lake shore, but allow plenty of time to get back before dark.
Where to stay: Glentanner Holiday Park in a powered site. The holiday park is just a 20-minute drive from the village and has views to Mount Cook over the Tasman River from where it enters Lake Pukaki.
Day 3 & 4
The Aoraki / Mount Cook National Park is best explored over two days, at a minimum! Depending on the walks done the day before, you still have multiple options for more. We opted for the hike to the Tasman Lake, at the base of NZ’s second tallest mountain, Mount Tasman. It is an easy one-hour return track. At the lake you can view icebergs that have carved off the largest NZ glacier, or join a kayak tour to get a better view of how enormous the bergs can be up close.
If your budget allows, a scenic flight over the National Park is an experience that you will never regret. You can take a flight in a snow plane and land on the snowy upper slopes of the Tasman Glacier. Or you can enjoy a heli-hike, an epic half day adventure, exploring amazing ice formations, crevices, caves and tunnels on the glacier. Exploring the ice cave was a bucket-list experience that we opted to enjoy this time around.
The Sir Edmund Hillary Alpine Centre, in Mount Cook Village, is another must do experience, and perfect if the weather is a little cold or damp. The Alpine Centre houses a museum showcasing the history of the Mount Cook region, as well as a 2D & 3D theatre and digital dome planetarium. The 3D “Mount Cook Magic” is a fabulous cinematic experience where you can climb Mount Cook, fly over the Alps, or ski the Tasman Glacier – all from within the warmth of the Alpine Centre.
Where to stay: White Horse Hill Campsite at Aoraki / Mount Cook Village (Department of Conservation). A large camping space at the start several tracks (Hooker Lake, Kea Point and Sealy Tarns), with toilets and a large communal kitchen/socialising space.
Mount Cook to Twizel
DISTANCE 60KM - DRIVING TIME 0.75 HOURS
After the adventures at Mount Cook, exploring the Twizel area is a more leisurely affair. The drive from Mount Cook to Twizel is only 45 minutes. Twizel is the largest town in the Mackenzie District, and was originally founded to house those working on the construction of the Upper Waitaki Hydroelectric scheme. A great place to stop for a delicious brunch (I recommend Shawty’s Café) and restock at the local 4 Square supermarket.
Lake Ruataniwha is nearby and is a beautiful place to have a lunchtime picnic. On a sunny day, the turquoise colour of the lake must be seen to be believed. From Twizel, you can take a short drive to other nearby spots – Omarama and the Clay Cliffs to the South, Lake Ohau and Lake Middleton to the West, or Lake Benmore to the east. Omarama also has some fabulous, private, wood-fired hot pools if the muscles are a bit sore from all the walking over the previous two days.
After a relaxing day, we drove to Lake Tekapo for sunset and some star gazing. Tekapo is part of the Aoraki Mackenzie Dark Sky Reserve and has attracted thousands of visitors from around the world to experience the amazing dark, starry skies. On a clear night, a tour with “Dark Sky Project” either in town or up at the Mount John Observatory allows the opportunity to view the stars and planets through enormous telescopes, providing a new appreciation for the night sky. Alternatively, walk to the famous Church of the Good Shepherd at dusk and watch as thousands of stars appear overhead. The Church is also a famous astrophotography spot, a favourite for photographers keen to capture the perfect image of the Milky Way.
Where to stay: Lake Tekapo Holiday Park. A modern holiday park with fabulous showers and views over the stunning Lake Tekapo
Twizel to Lake Ophua
DISTANCE 102KM - DRIVING TIME 1.5 HOURS
If you’re keen on an early start, photography at the Church of the Good Shepherd or down at the lake edge is a nice way to begin the day, followed by a hot coffee at one of the several local cafes. Afterwards, you can’t miss a visit to Tekapo Springs – three hot pools shaped like the glacial lakes in the region – Tekapo, Pukaki and Ohau. There is also a selection of cooler and play pools for the kids. In winter, Tekapo Springs is also home to an ice-skating rink and snow tube park, making it great fun for the whole family.
In the area you can also take a short drive to the picturesque Lake Alexandrina or enjoy one of several short walks in the area, including Cowans Hill Walkway, Mount John Summit Track or Lake Tekapo Regional Park. You can also take a jet boat ride or a scenic flight in the area. After a relaxing day at Lake Tekapo, we made our way an hour to the north, to camp at the picturesque Lake Ophua near Fairlie. Lake Opuha is a man-made Lake, built with the purpose of acting as an irrigation reservoir. At one end, you can walk along the large concrete dam. If the lake level is high, water will cascade over the hydro spillway to the river far below. Excess water is released in spring and summer for domestic and industrial use.
Where to stay: Lake Opuha Free Campsite. There are three designated campsites around the lake. We stayed at the southern end, and the camping area has toilets, although these may be closed during winter. The lake reflects the nearby mountains and is particularly beautiful on a still autumn or winter morning.
Lake Ophua to Christchurch
DISTANCE 185KM - DRIVING TIME 2.5 HOURS
After breakfast by the lake, we pointed our River in the direction of home, and made our way back to Christchurch. We stopped briefly in the small town of Geraldine for coffee and to taste some of the wares at Barkers of Geraldine, home of delicious chutneys, sauces, and jams, all produced at the Barkers family farm near the town. We also stopped to have lunch and admire the view at the picturesque Rakaia Gorge, where the Rakaia River is forced through a narrow canyon as it approaches the Canterbury Plains.