A family of explorers seek adventure in New Zealand's South Island
Erin, John and Cecilia are the nature-loving family behind travel blog LivingEZ. They're American expats now based in Sydney who recently flew across the ditch to tackle some of New Zealand's most majestic hikes on a campervan holiday. Their love for nature walks earned them incredible summit views – all with their two-year-old in tow (and only one toddler tantrum to speak of)!
Christchurch to Christchurch
Best Time of the Year
All year round
- Mt Cook National Park
- Key Summit
- Milford Sound cruise
- Country Café in Geraldine
Christchurch to Moeraki Boulders
Distance 280km - Driving Time 3.5 hours
All photographs by LivingEZ.
Where was the best view? Kea Point in Mt Cook National Park – only a short hike from the White Horse Hill campground but the glacier lake views are incredible!
Where did you stop for a picnic? The peak at Key Summit was incredible. We loved the summit trail with ample picnic benches and unbeatable views.
Where was your favourite place/town visited and why? Ohau served as our ‘off-the-beaten-track’ destination in the South Island. The still, calm lake provided a beautiful backdrop to the night under the stars at a small DOC campground.
What was your favourite experience/activity & why? We debated trying many activities with a toddler, but the Milford Sound cruise captivated the whole family. The waterfalls, seals, and Fiordland penguins were all worth getting a closer look at by boat.
Top highlights? The hiking was incredible in the two national parks we visited: Fiordland and Aoraki/Mt Cook. Our favourite trails are: Key Summit, Lake Marian, and Chasm in Fiordland; Hooker Valley, Sealy Tarns, and Tasman Lake in Aoraki/Mt Cook.
Best café for coffee? Country Café in Geraldine (1.5 hours from Christchurch) had amazing coffee and an indoor roaster!
Favourite pub/restaurant? Coalfire [Barbecue Bar], Queenstown.
Did you have a favourite Holiday Park you stayed in and why? The warm and welcoming Moeraki Boulders Holiday Park. The owners helped us ease into our holiday and campervan life.
Top tip for other campervan travellers? Our top tip would be to chase the weather. Having a few beautifully clear days in Milford Sound was such a gift, and we were happy that our flexible schedule allowed us to get there a day earlier for maximum sun.
Can you share a recipe from something you cooked in the campervan? We made Thai curry three times on the trip! Here’s what we did: added ½ jar of curry paste, 1 can coconut milk, and ½ bag of frozen vegetables to a pot over medium heat. Once the vegetables are warm, add sliced firm tofu and 2 pouches of microwavable rice.
What is your greatest memory of the whole campervan holiday? Cecilia loved climbing the boulders at the top of Key Summit in Fiordland National Park. We hope she remains an enthusiastic hiker!
Our favourite stop of the day: A rest stop along Highway 1 before crossing the Waitaki River Bridge. We wandered down to the river for rock throwing, admiring the mountain scenery, and breathing the cool crisp air. It's nothing terribly special – by New Zealand standards. I wouldn't go out of your way to stop, but we welcomed the opportunity to get out of the car, walk around, and stick our hand in the glacial water. We slept at Moeraki Boulders Holiday park which is warm, friendly, and very convenient to see the boulders.
Moeraki Boulders to Riversdale
Distance 250km - Driving Time 3.5 hours
On the drive from Moeraki Boulders, we glimpsed our first slice of 'real' New Zealand. Rolling green hills, pastures, and the glint of a calm blue waters serenely passed us on both sides. Lighthouse Road twists and turns through private farms to a dead end at the Penguin Rescue centre and Katiki Point Lighthouse. We arrived at noon, ate a quick snack, and hiked down the beach. The penguins are most active at dawn and dusk, and we missed them waddling out to fish. However, the area is full of seals laying about and sleeping, and the point is gorgeous, even without the wildlife. The uninterrupted blue water meets with the lush green plains creating an idyllic scene. There are no resorts, beach homes, or any commercial structures in sight. It is truly unspoilt.
Riversdale to Milford Sounds
Distance 225km - Driving Time 3.5 km
Driving 128km through Fiordland National Park to Milford Sound is quite the experience. I imagine it would be just as thrilling to inch closer to the dramatic landscape in one of the many tour buses, but we appreciated the freedom to stop and hop out of the motorhome to wander and photograph the unusual and beautiful landscape. Our favourite lookouts included Mirror Lakes, Pops View, and Monkey Creek.
Milford Sound Lodge is the closest campervan accommodation to the Sound, and it was the busiest site we visited. This campsite is far and away our favourite paid site of the trip! From the scenery, clean showers (with a towel warmer!), and the optional breakfast buffet to the friendly staff – we relished our time here.
We couldn’t come all the way to Milford Sound without seeing the Sound from the water. A cruise allows you to get up close to the waterfalls, seals, and even some Fiordland penguins! Thankfully we arranged our itinerary to chase the weather, and we had a crystal clear day.
Also, the park rangers in Te Anau told us to prioritise the Key Summit Track if we had a clear day because it is a ranger favourite. The challenging, yet rewarding, hike to the summit did not disappoint. The long uphill switchbacks are doubly grueling with a toddler on our backs, but the clear day called us to summit heights and epic views.
Milford Sound to Lake Wakatipu
Distance 270km - Driving Time 3.5 hours
We wanted to stay in Milford Sound longer, but with half the driving still ahead, we needed to keep moving. Fortunately, we squeezed in a few short walks during our last day in Milford Sound. We loved the Chasm, Tutoko Suspension Bridge, and the Swinging Bridge on the Lake Marian Trail.
We arrived at Lake Wakatipu in the early evening with enough time to pick a lovely site for freedom camping. Several other vehicles joined us in the picnic area off the highway, but we still managed to relish unobstructed sunset views.
As we return back to our campervan, so does the sun and with that along came a blue sky. We drive around the corner to the icebergs. Our last night will be spent at Lake Tekapo. Finally making our way to the campsite, it was night so we settled down and enjoyed the views. We were hoping to spend the night at the Church of the Good Shepherd with our cameras – unlucky us the terrible weather returned.
Lake Wakatipu to Queenstown
Distance 20km - Driving Time 30 min
While Queenstown is small, it did pack a lot of beauty! We admired the Remarkables from afar, and decided to splurge for a paid gondola city-view from above the following day. We wandered through the shopping and harbour, finding ourselves hungrily eyeing the menu at Coalfire Barbecue. We didn't hold back with the full BBQ platter of ribs, sausage, sirloin, wings, pulled pork, mac 'n' cheese, and fries.
We stayed at Queenstown Lakeview Holiday Park for the awesome location. We could walk downtown or to the gondola in five minutes. CZ gave the playground and trampoline a thumbs up, and I appreciated the hair dryers in the bathrooms!
Queenstown to Lake Ohau
Distance 100km - Driving Time 1.5 hours
After a grueling ride through twisting roads, with a thankfully sleeping child, we pulled off at the Lindis alpine pass summit. There is not much in terms of amenities or signage, but you can still stand in awe over the yellow grassy landscape stretching into the horizon. The grass is actually tussock and part of one of the first tussock reserves in New Zealand. Our short walk to the lookout point made donning raincoats and muddying shoes worth the effort.
We powered on to stay at Lake Ohau. As soon as we glimpsed the lake, we knew the trek was worth it. The isolated beauty of the campsite and serene lake perfectly complemented our adventurous morning. We slept lakeside at a small donations-based DOC campground with stellar sunrise vantage points.
Lake Ohau to Mt Cook National Park
Distance 100km - Driving Time 1.5 hours
In the morning, we stopped at a short hike on the way out of Lake Ohau and then continued into Mount Cook National Park. Like Milford, the road into Mount Cook requires a fair bit of driving before reaching the campsite. Although it also offers lots of opportunities to stop for photos of the milky turqoise glacier lakes and stunning ice capped peaks.
We arrived at the campsite and immediately headed out on the popular Hooker Valley track. We soldiered on to the end, despite a full-on toddler tantrum, and finally reached the amazing glacier lake. The swinging bridges, wooden paths, and tall mountains in the distance make the scene almost too cinematic to be real.
Mt Cook National Park to Geraldine
Distance 200km - Driving Time 2.5 hours
We made the most of our morning in Mount Cook by completing the Kea Point lookout, Sealy Tarns track, Blue Lakes track, and Tasman track. We could have spent the entire day with these hikes, but blitzed through them after meandering the 2,000 steps of the monstrous Sealy Tarns Track. Erin also learned a fun fact about herself: while she enjoys heights while locked into a harness, climbing up to a glacier gives her vertigo that she must overcome by turning around. We stopped at Lake Tekapo on our drive to Geraldine, a small, quaint town.
Geraldine to Christchurch
Distance 130km - Driving Time 1.75 hours
Our flight was scheduled for 2pm, so we had enough time to enjoy a relaxing breakfast at a local café in Geraldine before packing up and heading back to Christchurch.
After dropping off the van, we caught a complimentary airport transfer from THL to the airport. I love tiny international airports with a low-key ambience. Most of the travelers are tourists instead of somewhat frantic business travelers. We spent our last hour in Christchurch meandering through the airport shops and running with Cecilia.