The Epic Southland Road Trip

Camper at Mavora Lakes

This trip was born of the collision of two dreams – to do a family holiday in a camper van, and to take Mr6 to see Fiordland. It took a lot of debate and discussion to get sorted (largely due to the cost of the campervan hire putting Mark off), but was worth it given the places we saw and the time we had together.

Day 1: Click and Collect

Queenstown – Kawerau Bungy Centre. 18km, 30mins
The advice on our booking was to simply call the contact centre from the free phone at the airport. So we did. And they wanted our booking reference before they collected us. So be warned of that one. We could have walked (and on previous trips we have routinely walked to that area for rental cars and accommodation), but we got the ride sorted and were off.
Be prepared for the fact that collecting your camper will take a while – longer for bigger vehicles. Some of the time is paperwork, including them working through upgrade options (hint: its worth looking at buying the fast return package on pick up, saved us an hours cleaning and about $50 in Road User Charges because we did a lot of driving).
We arrived at Queenstown Airport around 1:45pm. By the time we had collected our bags, signed our lives away on the camper, been through our introduction to it, loaded our bags in, cleaned up a skinned knee and elbow from Mr6 falling over, collected groceries and driven the half hour out to the AJ Hackett Bungy Centre at Kawarau Bridge, it was well and truly dinner time already.
We unpacked, made the beds, put away the spare linen and had a yummy dinner before exploring the bridge in the dark and admiring the stars. The road quietened as it got dark, and it was surprisingly peaceful.

Day 2: Full Noise

Kawerau – Kingston – Mavora Lakes. 180km, All Day.
The rules for free camping at the Kawarau Bungy Carpark stated that you had to be up and about and ready to leave by 8am. So at 7:55am we opened the curtains and jumped out for a walk. Turns out, they offer you a discount on breakfast at their café if you want to hang around in the shoulder season.
At lunch we had an appointment at Real Country Farm in Kingston, so we made our way down the lake and had morning tea and a play at the playground in Kingston township. The Farm Experience was awesome, a small group meant you really could get all the way in with the animals. We enjoyed lunch in the carpark before we headed off again.
Short of Te Anau, we turned off the highway and hit a long stretch of gravel road to go to Mavora Lakes for the night. It was SUPER loud in the back of the camper on the gravel – between the sound of the cabin against the air, the crunch under the wheels, and the rattle of the kitchen, it was nearly impossible to have a conversation.
Mavora Lakes is a huge campsite area, and it took us a good 10 minutes of driving round to find a good flat and sheltered spot for the night. We wound up tucked hard into a scrim of bushes, which we discovered in the morning to have been an absolute blessing, as the wind was brutally cold coming down over the lake. A shame, it would have been nice to explore, but it was cold and wet.

Day 3: Beyond Contact

Mavora – Te Anau – Milford Sound. 185km, all day.
I was feeling like my head was in a decent space at last (I was in the late stages of a course of antibiotics and painkillers for an infected gum), and like maybe I could drive. So I got a turn, starting on the gravel road. Baptism by fire baby.
We drove in to Te Anau, where we stopped for a play in the awesome playground on the waterfront, and to grab fresh groceries for two nights in Milford Sound. As a note, there are camper sized carparks at the playground, so leave the van there and walk to the supermarket.
Mark took over driving as far as the Eglington Valley lookout, because there’s just not that much of interest until you got there. We had all day to do the drive, so long as we cleared the Hollyford Road junction by 4pm, when it was due to close for the night (predicted snow, and avalanche risk).
I took over after the lookout, and we stopped at several spots along the way, including for afternoon tea at Cascade Creek Camp Area. It was awesome just stopping off, grabbing out a cold drink and a biscuit, doing some exploring and heading off again.
We made it to Milford in good time and excellent spirits. I successfully parked the camper in quite a tight spot, and we settled in for a quiet evening.

Day 4: Mighty Milford

Milford Sound.
Having heard that parking fees were being introduced, we left the camper at the lodge and walked into the village, spotting a pair of kea by the airport on our way. We booked into a nature cruise, then wandered back to the café to buy a treat to go with our lunch on the boat.
The cruise was awesome. More detail on it in a future post. We all got sopping wet and it was fantastic.
After walking back to the camper, having hot showers and chilling out for a bit, we took the camper back down to the waterfront parking to have dinner with a view of Mitre Peak. An evening walk around the edge of the sound wrapped up an amazing trip.

Day 5: From Tall to Deep

Milford Sound – Thicketburn (Lake Hauroko). 226km, All Day.
After checking with reception when the road was reopening for the day and a relaxed breakfast, we headed back out of Milford Sound. We made only two stops on our way back to Te Anau – Monkey Flat, where we were entertained by 4 kea at once, and Pops Lookout, where we found another.
Lunch in Te Anau back at the campervan parks by the playground involved hot chips from the fish n chip shop which was amazing, then we grabbed groceries for another couple of days travel and headed south.
Our goal for the night was the official free campground at Thicketburn, just shy of Lake Hauroko. The drive was really interesting, through parts of the country I’ve never seen. We found a lovely school that offered a clean and well maintained toilet for the public out the back of their swimming pool.
It was raining off and on at Thicketburn, and we opted to park up straight away rather than continue down to the public jetty and come back, to make sure we got a flat spot on the loop road since the picnic area was partially flooded.
We were joined by a people mover sized van for the night, so this was a super peaceful spot, even if we did get muddy finding the toilet through the puddles!

Day 6: Cross-Country Mission

Lake Hauroko – Dunedin. 310km. All Day.
The rain cleared overnight, and we headed off reasonably early for Lake Hauroko itself. Turns out, a number of vehicles had camped there overnight – an option that allowed for sunrise photos, but also there were SO MANY sandflies compared to Thicketburn.
We had wanted to walk to the lookout, but turns out its about a 4 hour return track and very steep, and we had plans to be in Dunedin for the weekend, so instead we ambled about the jetty (half submerged) and then headed back to civilisation.
Lunch in Winton was amazing, the Magnolia House Café had a great range of offerings both for Mr6 and myself. Our only other stop for the day was the playground in Clinton, which also gets a highly recommended review.
At last we arrived and checked in to our accommodation. We borrowed a movie from reception and chilled out to watch it around dinner. I headed out super late for a drink with old uni friends, which was awesome.

Day 7: Big City Living

We left the camper behind for the day, which was an odd sensation! We grabbed a bus over to Moana Pool for a swim and hydroslide in the morning, grabbed lunch at a Turkish place just off the Octagon, then hit up the museum, where we never left the science centre. A quick stop at New World for dinner groceries and it was back on the bus home to the camper for laundry, dinner and another movie. A big day!

Day 8: Escape the Clutches of Urban Life

Dunedin – Moeraki Village. 80km, About an hour.
We started our day with cleaning and refilling the camper, before heading to indoor mini golf because it was cold and yuck. After trying the playground at the Botanic Gardens (a long walk from a camper-friendly parking spot for a very short visit), we opted to head out to South Dunedin for the supermarket.
Later, we parked up on John Wilson Ocean Drive to eat our lunch with a view of the surf while debating where to go next. We had two more nights in the camper before it had to be returned and changed out for a rental car. We debated turning back south, then going inland via Middlemarch and Rock and Pillar, or north for a bit to Palmerston then inland to Ranfurly and Naseby. This was the most unplanned part of our trip, and I think it was also the most fun.
In the end, we opted to head north to Moeraki Boulders for the night, then figure out our path back to Cromwell or similar for our last night.
Turning up at the Moeraki Village campground, we snagged one of the last powered waterfront sites, and so we had an amazing view down to the peaceful water for the evening. We walked ourselves over to the boulders themselves (about 4km each way along the beach and local roads) and back before dinner. We loved this village so much, it was exactly what we needed for the night.

Day 9: Long Haul Explorers

Moeraki – Bendigo. 250km, all day.
We’re all geeks, so its no surprise that after a morning back at the boulders (staying through until lunch time), we decided to take the longest route option and continue north before heading inland through the Waitaki HydroElectric Chain. Through here we met some of the straightest roads we’d had on the entire trip, which was nice.
We detoured over the top of Aviemore Power Station and continued down the north side of the lake, admiring the various campgrounds dotted along the way, before enjoying afternoon tea at the lookout for the Benmore Spillway.
From here we continued on to Omarama, where we stopped for a play, and then on to the top of the Lindis Pass, where we stopped for pre-dinner nibbles and to marinate the meat for dinner. We considered just staying there for the night as there were no “no camping” signs, but decided against it in case we got in trouble.
Eventually we hit the free camping area at Bendigo, where we planned to stop for the night. We had too little petrol for the space heater, so we were super glad it was a warmer night than some others we’d had! Sunset alongside the lake was lovely, and we again found that the roads were quiet not long after dark, so camping right alongside wasn’t a big issue.

Day 10: The End

Bendigo – Queenstown. 70km, morning
All of a sudden it was time to pack up and return our camper. We’d opted for a quick return package so we didn’t need it to be full of petrol, or clean out the grey water. But we did need to clean out the fridge and pack up all our gear.
We stopped briefly in Cromwell, before heading through the Kawerau Gorge and back to Queenstown, where we returned the camper, dropped some of our excess dry goods in the camper depot, and picked up a rental car instead. Goodness it felt strange to be in a car!


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