As Kiwis, we often find ourselves chatting with fellow travellers about our beautiful country New Zealand. This leads to the usual question, “Where should I spend the most time, and what are the best places to see?”
With so many stunning places to visit in New Zealand, our suggestions can take some time.
However, without a doubt, the South Island will always be near the top of our traveller wish list.
And when combined with a campervan road trip, freedom camping south island, New Zealand, is the best South Island road trip.
The South Island is an inspiring destination of snow-capped mountains, impressive glaciers, pristine rain forests and rugged coastlines.
It has you pondering, “where do I begin, and how long do I stay.”
One thing is certain, on a campervan road trip, you can explore all the stunning lakes, waterfalls and iconic places of the South Island.
Whether you begin your journey by taking the ferry from Wellington to Picton or fly into Christchurch or Queenstown, a campervan or motorhome trip is a great option.
What is the difference between Campervan and Motorhome?
A campervan is a van converted for basic self-contained living. Generally, it has a cooktop, fridge, showers over the toilet and a bed to make up each day.
A Motorhome is a self-contained living area built on a truck or bus chassis. The motorhome has a dedicated kitchen, living area and permanent bed. Often the shower is separate from the toilet, and there is more storage.
Which is Better, Campervan or Motorhome?
The advantage of a Campervan is they are often smaller and easier to park. You will pay less for ferry charges, insurance and fuel. But there is less space to move around.
The advantage of a Motorhome is the extra space to enjoy. This is so beneficial if you are travelling for a few weeks. The average motorhome is 4-6 berths, perfect for an extra guest.
What is Freedom Camping?
“Freedom camping is when you camp on public land that isn’t a recognised camping ground or holiday park” (NZ Government website).
Depending on the season, freedom camping is free of charge for overnight camping except:
- A permit for freedom camping in peak seasons
- DOC freedom camping areas may charge a minimal overnight fee
Remember to respect the area you camp in.
Responsible Freedom Camping
If you are new to freedom camping in New Zealand, our suggestion is to ensure your campervan or motorhome:
- displays a current self-containment warrant issued under New Zealand Standard Self Containment of Motor Caravans and Caravans, NZS 5465:2001
- has an accessible toilet when the bed is made up.
If your campervan or motorhome doesn’t have these requirements, our advice, find one that does. And please, take your rubbish with you.
Can you Freedom Camp the South Island?
Freedom camping is available in many South Island locations, except for some popular tourist spots. So it pays to do your research in advance.
Many freedom camping designated areas are restricted to parking precincts with a restriction on the number of nights. Restrictions also apply to the summer season.
DOC campgrounds are sometimes remote but close to nature.
But if you have to pay for an overnight stay, we loved the quirky, rustic camping grounds at:
Lake Manapouri – Possum Lodge – situated by the lake with clean and tidy facilities. Set amongst trees, it’s an easy walk to the ferry to Doubtful Sound. Only 20mins to Te Anau.
Lumsden Camping Ground – an alternative to the freedom camping area of Lumsden. With plenty of green space and resident Alpacas. Only 1hr 20min to Queenstown.
Options for Wanaka and Christchurch:
Mt Aspiring Holiday Park – Wanaka – overlooking Lake Wanaka is a large campsite with plenty of facilities.
Amber Kiwi Holiday Park and Motel – Christchurch – small campsite within 3.5 km of Hagley Park. The kitchen does not supply utensils, cutlery or plates/cups. The bathrooms are clean.
The alternative is to purchase a:
New Zealand Motor Caravan Association (NZMCA) membership. This allows you to stay in a number of NZMCA parks for $6 per night per adult. Parks are not powered, and no facilities are provided.
Department of Conservation (DOC) campsite pass. Campsites have services for tap water and toilet.
Freedom Camping Rules in New Zealand South Island
To ensure you avoid fines on the South Island, below is a list of the bylaws for provinces throughout the South Island.
These websites will advise if freedom camping is allowed and show you the designated area. Due to the large number of district councils, please review each website before travelling for any changes.
- Check the Kaikoura District Council Bylaws
- Check the Christchurch City Council Bylaws
- Check the South Canterbury Bylaws
- Check the Ashburton District Council Bylaws
- Check the Waitaki District Council Bylaws
- Check the Dunedin City Council Bylaws
- Check the Clutha District Council Bylaws
- Check the Southland District Council Bylaws
Queenstown and Wanaka:
- Check the Queenstown Lakes District Council Bylaws
- Check the South Canterbury Bylaws
- Check the Westland District Council Bylaws
- Check the Marlborough District Council Bylaws
- Check the Tasman District Council Bylaws
- Check the Nelson City Council Bylaws
What are the best places to visit on your South Island trip?
The South Island offers some of the best travel experiences in New Zealand. In fact, many visitors say the sights are some of the most stunning in the world, and we won’t argue.
You will be in awe of the snow-covered mountains, the vibrant colours of the many lakes and the endless beautiful scenery.
So, allow yourself a minimum of 10 days for your journey. You won’t be disappointed, but you will wish you had made more time.
Make a Stop in Kaikoura
The Peninsula of Kaikoura is where you’ll “see the mountains-meet-ocean landscapes”.
This relaxed town is renowned for Whale Watching, delicious crayfish and fur seals.
Travelling from Picton (2 hours) or from Christchurch (1 hr40min), make a stop at Kaikoura to unwind and relax before you head home or start your South Island journey.
Freedom Camping: Maximum one night
- West End car park (5.30 pm – 8.30 am)
- Jimmy Armers Beach
- Scarborough Street
- South End Railway Station Carpark
- Pohowera (South Bay) – (open 1st March -14th August)
Taste Wine and Chocolates in Blenheim
With an abundance of wineries, a stop in Blenheim is always a delight for your taste buds. And this trip, we were able to add Makana Confections. Their range of handmade chocolates had us in a spin, trying sugar-free chocolate or the scrumptious Macadamia Butter Toffee Crunch.
- Wynen Street car park (6 pm-9am)
- Wairau Diversion Reserve
- Taylor Dam Reserve
- Renwick Domain (6 pm-9 am)
Wander the Gardens of Hagley Park, Christchurch
If you are starting your journey from Christchurch, the city has a relaxed atmosphere. You can spend your time at:
International Antarctic Centre – an insight into a continent you may want to visit one day.
Botanic Gardens within Hagley Park – plan a day, whatever the season, to meander the 165 hectares of Hagley Park. Or hire an Edwardian Punter to guide you along the Avon River.
Canterbury Museum – one of many beautiful stone buildings of Christchurch, takes you back to discover the city’s origins.
Riverside Market – tasty food from a variety of retailers before or after a stroll down the pedestrian-friendly shopping precinct.
Christchurch Tram City Tour – hop-on-hop-off ticket to visit iconic inner-city sights.
Freedom Camping: Maximum of two nights in most public areas in the city except:
- Christchurch city centre (anywhere enclosed in Deans Ave, Harper Ave, Bealey Ave, Fitzgerald Ave and Moorhouse Ave)
- New Brighton Beach car park
- Lyttleton town centre
Cruise with Hector’s Dolphins at Akaroa
Slow down and enjoy the drive to Akaroa.
If driving from Banks Pennisula, stop at Governor Bay for photos before going through Gebbies Pass. The road will take you along Lake Ellesmere, full of birds, especially swans, but watch out for annoying bugs!
Akaroa is a quaint village established by the French in 1840. Enjoy some time wandering the streets and viewing the early settlement buildings.
Take a cruise in the harbour, and if you are lucky, you will see the rare Hector’s Dolphins swimming alongside the boat. Black Cat Cruises is a great option as the cruise goes to the Tasman Sea to view seals in another bay.
Freedom Camping: Takamatua Bay
Stop at Riverstone Castle between Timaru and Oamaru
If you need a break between Timaru and Oamaru, try the tasty lunch menu at Riverstone Kitchen (closed Tuesday and Wednesday). And combine it with a castle tour for a unique “vision of one woman’s dream to build her very own castle.”
Timaru – Walk the 20 minutes South Beach Coastal Track from Patiti Point car park for views of Caroline Bay. Keep a lookout for penguins and seals.
Oamaru – will surprise you as you step back in time to the Victorian era. Wander the elegant heritage buildings constructed from Oamaru stone (whitestone). And in the evening, visit the penguins at the Oamaru Blue Penguin Colony.
- All Day Bay Free Campground, 1050 Waianakarua Road, Herbert
View the Moeraki Boulders before Dunedin
Formed 65 to 13 million years ago, these unusual boulders on Koekohe Beach were unearthed with the erosion of the beach cliff. Easy access to the boulders is near the Café and carpark.
And for the best fish and chips, drive to The Fishwife in Moeraki Village. Check Google for opening hours first.
If you plan to stay in Dunedin, the Toitu Otago Settlers Museum details the social history of the Otago Province. It is New Zealand’s oldest museum, so allow a couple of hours to absorb what it has to offer.
Next door to the museum is the architectural elegance of the Dunedin Railway Station. Across the road, the Dunedin Law Courts building is also Victorian Gothic, similar to the University of Otago Registry building.
Dunedin has retained many buildings from the earlier eras of New Zealand.
- Warrington Domain
- Ocean View Recreation Reserve
Drive the Southern Scenic Route, South Island
The Southern Scenic Route is a mixture of highways from Dunedin to Queenstown.
The route covers The Catlins and Highway 99 to the eastern boundary of the Fiordland National Park. And Highway 6 to Queenstown.
It seems, at times, you are the only one on the road admiring the spectacular scenery.
Stop along The Catlins
The Catlins is a destination of natural beauty, endangered species, rainforests, and beaches.
Its rugged coastline and walking tracks will have you often stopping to explore.
And to see the best of the Catlins, you’ll need to deviate away from the main highway for:
- Tunnel Hill
- Owaka Teapotland and Wetlands
- Matai Falls
- Cathedral Caves (accessible low tide)
- Purakaunui Falls
- McLean Falls
- Curio Bay Cliffs (Fossilised Forests)
- Waipapa Point Lighthouse
- Cliffs at Fortrose (Mataura River Mouth)
Outside the summer season, the Catlins Freedom Camping sites are not busy. Some are very remote, like Weir Road near Slope Point.
- Inn Street, Owaka
- Larne St, Waikawa
- Weir Road, Haldane Bay (close to Slope Point)
- Fortrose (near the boat ramp, Moray Terrace)
Take Highway 99 for Doubtful Sound
The drive along Highway 99 from Invercargill takes you further along the southern scenic route. Picturesque bays, beaches, and coastal views of the mountains before the route go inland to the Clifden Suspension Bridge.
Highway 99 is an introduction to the beauty of Fiordland. Before turning inland, the view of majestic mountains from Gemstone Beach or McCracken’s Rest is spell-bounding. To wake up with this view is what makes the South Island a must-see destination.
Highway 99, South Island Highlights:
- Colac Bay/Oraka
- Gemstone Beach
- McCracken’s Rest
- Colac Bay
- Monkey Island Beach (Cliff St)
Book Real Journeys for Doubtful Sound and Milford Sound
If you have to choose between Doubtful Sound and Milford Sound, we suggest don’t choose, do both. These Sounds (actually fiords) offer two different experiences.
Doubtful Sound is accessed from Lake Manapouri with a ferry ride across the lake and a bus trip down to the Sound. Cruising out to the Tasman Sea to see seals and penguins basking and then cutting the engines to hear birdsong is memorable.
Milford Sound is accessed from Te Anau by bus. Stopping along Milford Road is the double feature of visiting Milford Sound. With views down the valley surrounded by mountains and saying hello to cheeky Keas will leave you speechless.
The cruise of the Sound has many spectacular waterfalls accompanied by dolphins and playful seals.
Wet or shine, the Sounds is a bucket list destination. Some people say the trip is better when the weather is wet, as this is when the waterfalls are at their most spectacular.
Freedom Camping: Henry Creek Campsite, near Te Anau
Walk the Wilderness Scientific Reserve before Queenstown
Between Te Anau and Queenstown, the panoramic scenery of the Fiordlands interrupts your drive.
An area called The Key is scattered with red tussock covering an ancient bog pine forest at the Wilderness Scientific Reserve. It’s a 5-minute walk to the viewing platform.
Places to stop between Te Anau and Queenstown:
- Mossburn (for a venison pie)
- Garston Hunny Shop
- Devil’s Staircase Lookout
Freedom Camping: 13 Diana Street, Lumsden
Queenstown Freedom Camping Bylaw 2021 (Proposed areas yet to be confirmed)
- Gibbston Reserve carpark
- Glenorchy Domain carpark
- Camphill Road carpark
- Morven Ferry Reserve
- Luggate Red Bridge Reserve
Decision time, Haast Pass or Lindis Pass
It’s never an easy decision.
Does your itinerary or the weather dictate it? For us, we chose to follow the sun.
After a delicious homemade scone at Tarras Country Café, the extreme wilderness of Lindis Pass showcased the diverse landscape of the South Island. Emerging from the Pass, the flat land near Omarama made it easy to see the natural phenomenon of the Clay Cliffs.
But at Omarama, you’re faced with another decision.
Right towards the east coast for fossils, Elephant Rocks and Maori Carvings. Or head north to Aoraki Mount Cook.
We chose north, tasting a sumptuous salmon platter at High Country Salmon.
Freedom Camping: Ahuriri Bridge campsite, State Highway 8
Walk to Aoraki Mount Cook for sunrise
Waking at 5.30 am to see the fading moonlight casting a glow on the snow of Mount Sefton gave us the encouragement to forget sleep.
The sunrise walk to see Aoraki Mount Cook was one of the most memorable walks we have undertaken anywhere in the world.
The Hooker Valley Track is an easy 10km return walk, especially at dawn. The three swing bridges are an adrenalin rush when the wind is howling through. But seeing icebergs on Hooker Lake at the base of Aoraki Mount Cook makes the walk a highlight of a trip around the South Island.
Highlights for Aoraki Mount Cook:
- Hooker Valley Track
- Kea Point (one hour return)
- Red Tarns Viewpoint (about 700 steps)
- Sealy Tarns Viewpoint (steep climb)
- Tasman Glacier Viewpoint (15min uphill walk)
Freedom Camping: The Pines Lake, Hayman Rd, Tekapo
Paid Camp Sites:
- DOC White Horse Hill Campsite, Aoraki: $15 per adult per night
- Aoraki Alpine Lodge (large shared kitchen and lounge with an alpine view)
Meander the Back Roads of Mount Somers
There is plenty to keep your attention on the drive from Tekapo’s iconic Good Shepherd Church. The drive to Christchurch is under three hours to enjoy:
- Burkes Pass – entrance to Mackenzie Country
- Fairlie Bakehouse – for the best pies and ginger kisses
- Geraldine – delicious selection at Barkers
- Mount Somers
- Ashburton Lakes
Freedom Camping: Lake Clearwater Reserve
Climb Castle Hill Rocks at Arthurs Pass
Is it worth visiting Arthur’s Pass?
Yes. Especially if you pick a beautiful day or stay a few days to enjoy a high country mountain pass. With so many photographic opportunities of stunning scenery.
Starting at Castle Hill Rocks, you will be intrigued by the odd-shaped limestone boulders. Set back from the road with the mountain views; time disappears as you climb the hills.
Crossing the Waimakariri River to capture river and mountain views.
Stopping at Arthur’s Pass village for a steep climb to the 131-metre Devil’s Punchbowl Waterfall. Take photos at the Otira Viaduct and Rock Shelter lookouts.
Freedom Camping: Andrews Shelter Campsite, Mount White Road
Deviate from Lake Brunner to Reefton
We love to deviate from the main road to find new and interesting places. We ended up spending two nights at Lake Brunner, Moana.
This small settlement, 40 km from Greymouth, has great fishing, freshwater swimming and easy walks. With only a petrol station, a store, a café and a pub it leaves you free to explore.
Brunner Mine – On the banks of the Grey River, the 2km loop track details the 65 miners killed in the 1896 explosion. The mass grave for the victims of New Zealand’s worst mining disaster can be visited at Stillwater.
Reefton – With the main street named The Broadway, you step back in time to old town New Zealand. So, grab an I-Site map for the Heritage Walk, and chat with the Bearded Miners before sampling pink gin at the Reefton Distilling Co.
Freedom Camping: The Strand, Reefton
- Slab Hut Creek Camping, Reefton (DOC )
- Ahaura Domain
Turn Left or Right at Springs Junction
Running down the middle of the South Island, the Southern Alps offers many mountains passes to transverse.
Leaving Reefton, a picturesque route through Victoria Forest Park, brings you to Springs Junction. Taking the Lewis Pass to Christchurch or Kaikoura, you can relax at Maruia Hot Springs or Hamner Springs.
The alternative is to head north to Nelson or Blenheim via Maruia Falls and the Nelson Lakes.
See the Best of the South Island
A campervan road trip around the South Island of New Zealand is unforgettable.
Traversing mountain passes, walking amongst rain forests, viewing icebergs, and surrounding yourself with the different landscapes of nature.
It’s what makes a road trip around the South Island such an unforgettable travel adventure.
The hardest part is creating your perfect itinerary to see the best of the South Island. And then give yourself the time to explore.
Touring in a campervan allows you to stop and stay in picturesque places away from popular tourist spots. Choosing freedom camping south island, including popular DOC campsites, will get you close to nature.
When you travel the South Island, it becomes your story to share with fellow travellers.