Ah, New Zealand! A land straight out of a fantasy novel. With sunny coastlines, emerald lakes, fern forests, and snowy peaks, this diverse country attracts adventurers worldwide. Long before Lord of the Rings enchanted the world with magical scenes, I dreamed of exploring this extraordinary island nation, but for years no one in my inner circle wanted to go, so it stayed on my someday list. 

Then the unthinkable happened – Covid shut down the entire world. OMG I missed my chance! After nearly two years of longing, as soon as Covid restrictions finally lifted, I planned a six-week trip to NZ flying solo. Happily, people in New Zealand are super friendly, and within days I had several new international friends ready to share adventures. 

My new Canadian friend and I hiked the Tongariro Crossing – passing many hours and kilometers swapping travel stories and taking pics in the ever-changing landscape. My new German friend and I did a three-day hike on the Abel Tasman track, overnighting in Department of Conservation (DOC) huts, and sharing a bottle of Chardonnay I’d hauled in for Thanksgiving dinner. 

Abel Tasman Thanksgiving dinner
Thanksgiving feast in Abel Tasman National Park

 But the biggest adventure of my trip – and the one I’d most dreamed of – was freedom camping on the South Island. My new British friend and I got along so well hiking, mountain biking, and London-style raving in Wellington, that we took a leap of friendship and rented a Ford Transit Connect for a glorious South Island tour before Christmas peak season.

Now, I had high expectations for this journey. Like Texas tourist in Colorado high. Little did I know that reality would surpass my wildest hopes! Every turn on our trip revealed new breathtaking vistas or surprising wildlife encounters. Despite coming from the radiant Rockies, I still found myself gasping at every new technicolor scene, almost like I’d fallen into a fairytale wonderland of rainbows and unicorns.

OK not quite unicorns, but crowds of creatures nearly as magical. And yes, razzles of rainbows! From adorable blue penguins to squawking parrots to giant sea lions, the wildlife of NZ waddled and frolicked, chattered and chirped, as if welcoming us to their enchanted realm. Some of these encounters felt so Planet Earth I could almost hear David Attenborough narrating. 

So if you love living your adventures on-location in real-time, I recommend heading to NZ, renting a van, and exploding your senses with the untamed beauty of freedom camping.

Wait, What's Freedom Camping?

Good question! New Zealand freedom camping doesn’t necessarily mean fee-free, although many locations cost nothing. More specifically, it means you can stay overnight in loads of locations like public areas, parks, DOC land, rest stops, and even some unmarked roadsides. But hold your marshmallows, even the land of adventure has regulations to keep the country from declining into a chaos of crappy campers. 

Two Types of Freedom Camping: Self-Contained and Non-Self-Contained

Self-contained means your RV comes equipped with the essentials that keep you from leaving a mess — namely, a fixed toilet, waste storage, and fresh water supply. Camping areas with no public toilet facilities require a self-contained rating on your RV. 

When freedom camping got really popular and visitors started ignoring basic camping etiquette and defiling the landscapes, Kiwis got so angry they considered outlawing freedom camping altogether. I loved their bluntly-worded rules on the Tongariro Crossing map like don't "have a poo on the mountain" and in red, "Don't shit behind the rocks!" plus a few more. Clearly too many visitors were getting disgustingly selfish.

By comparison, non-self-contained campers, bless their adventurous souls, face more limitations. RVs with no fixed toilet must rely on public facilities to meet their basic needs, thus are restricted to certain camp areas. IOW, you don’t get the true freedom of freedom camping, so getting a certified self-contained vehicle definitely pays off. That said, NZ has many more public toilets than you find in the US, so non-self-contained is still a viable option.

If your adventurous soul can hear the call of wild New Zealand, check out my trip report below, with must-see locations and helpful tips for living your best campervan journey ever. 


Keep freedom camping alive! Respect wildlife, follow regulations and leave no trace. And please don’t transform the land of Lothlórien into your personal porta-potty.

12 Days in Paradise - Van Tour of the South Island 

Day 1 — Christchurch and Blue Penguins

We picked up our campervan in Christchurch, and headed south. First stop, Oamaru to visit the famous Blue Penguin Colony. These pint-sized cuties, affectionately known as "little" or "fairy" penguins, stole our hearts with their vibrant blue feathers and adorable antics. These NZ natives are also the tiniest penguins on the planet.

From unlit viewing bleachers, we spectators quietly watched “rafts” of penguins return from all-day fishing, stumbling and flapping as they clumsily climbed the rocky shore. They took ages to get from the ocean to their boxes, stopping constantly to check for danger and groom themselves. Turns out, not only their beauty but their health depends on this meticulous feather styling.

Some penguins marched right through the spectator area without any concern about human onlookers. Some critters tried squatting in their neighbors' houses close to the shore – prime real estate in penguin terms. We even witnessed a love triangle drama, as two males flapped and squawked, vying for the affection of a coveted wife.

Well after dark, with all penguins back home to roost, we took the van south and found a freedom camping spot right by the ocean at Katiki Beach North Reserve. Falling asleep to the sound of the waves hitting the shore, I marveled at our fabulous first day.


If you're planning a campervan adventure on a tight budget or during peak season, have your inner early bird book in advance. We found a great website called Camplify for RV rentals. Like AirBnB on wheels, Camplify connects RV owners with adventurous renters. We negotiated a bargain with just two weeks' notice, although weeks before holiday peak season. With an excellent selection of RV types and sizes, Camplify likely has the right RV for your adventure. Plus, the booking process was smoother than a well-paved road. 

Day 2 Dunedin and the Tuhura Otago Museum

Steadily raining as we drove south, the weather sent us indoors in Dunedin. The Tūhura Otago Museum proved a fun rainy day activity with displays that turn history and science into an interactive challenge. The natural history of NZ captured my imagination, especially two gargantuan birds, the moa and Haast’s eagle. The fearsome stature of these two extinct birds evokes the stuff of horror movies. Like a massive ostrich, the moa once towered twice the height of a man and weighed up to 500 lbs! The Haast’s eagle grew so immense it carried off monstrous moas for dinner. When the Māori settlers first landed in NZ, the Haast’s eagle must have seemed like a monster straight out of the Jurassic era.

The cultural history and daring ocean voyages of the Māori people also caught my attention. They traveled in small ocean-going canoes, called waka, arriving in NZ over 800 years ago. The first humans to set foot on this island, the Māori hunted the moa out of existence, leading to the Haast's eagle’s extinction. The museum displays Māori artifacts like tools, carvings, costumes, and of course waka canoes in scenes depicting their daring ocean crossings. 

Afterwards we warmed up with a hot Korean lunch downtown, then headed south to our next campsite, Ocean View Reserve Carpark — basically just a gravel parking lot by the road. Venturing out in the drizzle past a bushy wall of seagrass, we discovered a vast, open beach with sea lions snoozing up in the grassy dunes.


Find the campsite for your style and budget with the free Rankers app, your invaluable map of all camping areas in NZ, with descriptions, costs, pics, and reviews. The Ocean View Reserve Carpark cost NZ $50 or US $31 — a bit pricey for the amenities but a good location with water resupply station. 

Day 3 — Seals and Sea Lions at Sandfly Bay, Royal Albatross Centre, and Fort Taiaroa

As the Royal Albatross Centre came highly recommended, we couldn’t resist another close encounter of the bird kind. Sheltered from the wet weather in a windowed hut high on the Otago Peninsula, we watched albatross pairs take turns hunting out at sea and incubating their eggs, and also enjoyed stunning views and other bird sightings. 

Of the thirteen albatross species in NZ, the Royal is the largest, with a wingspan of up to 11 feet.  Albatross couples have elaborate courtship rituals and are incredibly devoted to their offspring, which take nearly 80 days to hatch.

We also toured Fort Taiaroa, an underground piece of history below the albatross reserve. Established more than 100 years ago to counter the threat of invasion from Tsarist Russia, this former maritime military site now houses the world’s only restored 1886 Armstrong Disappearing gun. When the fort retired, the Royal Albatross Centre was born.  

The rain ceased just as we exited the fort, so we went for a hike seeking sea lions and seals at Sandfly Bay. This trail descends from a parking area high above, down through flowery dunes to a picture perfect sandy beach surrounded by yellow cliffs. Lucky day! We saw seals playing in the waves, several sea lions snoozing in the dunes and waddling to the water, and not even one pesky sandfly. 

After a couple hours at Sandly Beach, we scouted our next campsite:  Toko Mouth Overnight Campervan Parking near a beach of algae-covered rocks. We ended the day walking the beach in a light drizzle near the fluorescent green rocks.


Bring binoculars and a field guide as NZ is all about the birds. Before humans, NZ had no land-based mammals (only bats). The rest of its residents were feathered. From the iconic Kiwi – a quirky, flightless bird that looks like it took a wrong turn on the evolutionary highway to the mischievous Kea a curious brown parrot known for vocal antics to the dancing, flitting, flirty fantail – New Zealand’s winged residents seem almost as interested in us as we are in them. 

Sandfly Bay

Day 4 — Mitchell Rocks Beach Hike and Lake Monowai hike

By Day 4 the chores were calling. Even in paradise, you still gotta do laundry, shopping, dishes, and in my case, attend work meetings. First of course we got outside, starting the day hiking Mitchell Rocks, followed by a high-speed chase seeking cell service for my pending Zoom meeting. How awesome to work for a campervan company where meetings by the beach align with the company’s mission!

With practical duties done, we bid farewell to the coast and headed west. Rankers and our handy weather app led us to Hinchey's Outlet, a secluded area nestled in the trees by Lake Monowai, and no other campers but us! Though a bit chilly under the trees, we stayed cozy in our campervan, the perfect home for recharging batteries.


Working remotely? Make sure you have the right power for your laptop in the vehicle. Before leaving Christchurch, we got an inverter power strip to run off the engine battery instead of the solar panel which could only support 12V. For cell service, Google Fi provides data and SMS in 200 countries for the same $10/GB you pay at home (extra for calls). Just be sure your plan allows hotspotting. 

Routeburn Track

Day 5 – Routeburn Track and Cascade Creek

Continuing our push westward, a hot tip from isite sent us to one of the great walks of NZ, the famous Routeburn Track. Although we only tackled a small section — just three hours up-and-back from the Keys Summit trailhead — this hike easily made my top five list for the trip. In true NZ fashion, the insanely steep trail gained elevation so fast that we got an express trip to jaw-dropping views in no time!

Afterwards we backtracked a bit to enjoy the sunny evening relaxing at Cascade Creek Campground. This hidden oasis away from highway buzz could host an army of campers, but lucky for us it was practically deserted. Unpacking the mini grill that came with our van, we sizzled up mouthwatering burgers and watched the sun set behind the mountains.


Practically anywhere you travel in New Zealand, you’re sure to find an isite, the official Visitor Information Center where local experts help craft your adventures. They suggest destinations and activities based on your interests, help make reservations, and wish you a happy journey. In addition, Department of Conservation (DOC) centers provide great info about DOC lands, hikes, huts, and itineraries. These two resources pretty much made our trip with their free, friendly, and spot-on advice. 

Milford Sound

Day 6 — Milford Sound Boat Tour and Underwater Observatory

As we neared the west coast my excitement mounted, anticipating the stunning beauty ahead. The nature-porn videos I’d watched before the trip had me fantasizing about the ecstatic beauty of Milford Sound. I almost worried the reality of this celebrated location couldn’t possibly live up to the hype. 

One of the most popular tourist destinations in the world, Milford Sound books up early. The boat tour and our stay at Milford Lodge campground were the only reservations we absolutely had to make during our entire trip. Watching the weather for several days, we realized if we hurried on and arrived a day earlier than originally planned, we might dodge a major storm during the boat tour. Fortunately, we were able to move both reservations up a day, and, yes! No rain for our entire boat tour of cascading waterfalls and azure waterways. 

As our boat entered the Sound, billowing clouds swirled around the impossibly tall islands. Emerald mountains jutted straight out of the sea, stunningly set against silver-grey skies – truly a breathtaking spectacle. Then, unbelievably, the clouds opened to an almost-sunny day on the Sound! Our tour guide said (with a straight face) that we were in the midst of a drought, as Milford had gone three whole days without rain! If you can even fathom, Milford Sound averages 6813 mm of annual rainfall. That’s over 22 FEET of rain per year! 

To be clear, a three-day drought dries up most of the hundreds of waterfalls normally cascading down the cliffs. However, we were thrilled to see merely dozens of falls from out on the sunny deck rather than shivering in the rain or hiding inside the boat. At one point, our captain puttered right up under a waterfall, misting us brave souls who ventured out for a close-up view. Then, just as we started backing up, a couple dolphins popped their noses up to say hello. Cuties! 

Our tour also included a stop at the Milford Sound Underwater Observatory. About 10 meters below the surface of the water, the observatory looks out onto diverse marine life, with various species of fish, coral, and other bizarre sea creatures seen through large viewing windows.

After this incredible, beautiful, windy and wonderful day, we took our chilly bones to Milford Sound Lodge campground, craving hot showers, laundry machines, and a full kitchen. Gentle rain pattered the van roof all night, lulling me into a cozy sleep. 


The Windy weather app seriously saved our trip several times. As we mostly planned our itinerary on the fly, this highly detailed weather app showed when to forge ahead quickly and when to let the storms pass before continuing to a destination. Thanks to Windy, we timed the weather perfectly the whole trip, using rainy days for driving, chores, R&R, or indoor cultural events. 

Drive to Milford Sound through Homer Tunnel, Homer Saddle, Darran Mountain Range

Day 7 — Waterfalls Galore, Te Anau Biking and Bird Sanctuary

Saying goodbye to amazing Milford, we ventured back over the pass through Homer Tunnel. This time, the steady rain cascaded down from towering cliffs in hundreds of waterfalls, some like delicate threads of liquid silver, others plunging down in roaring torrents, inspiring awe around every turn.

Back in Te Anau, we stopped at isite to plan the next day or two of our journey. They recommended biking around the lake and stopping along the ride to explore the Te Anau Bird Sanctuary — a lovely way to spend the afternoon. 

Later, traffic jammed up the closer we drove to Queenstown. Decision time… Plunge into the adrenalin-soaked frenzy of this expensive tourist town? Or leave that box unchecked? Known for Instagram sports like bungee jumping, zip lining, jet boating, helispewing, megacrashing, or somesuch silliness, Queenstown has become the look-at-me capital of NZ. Yeahhh…no.

We grabbed some groceries then drove high into the hills to wind down with a beer at Crown Range Summit. Though just a parking lot by the road, the panoramic overlook and sunset views make Crown Range a popular site for self-contained campers. Turns out our stunning overlook included several LOTR locations like the River Anduin, the Pillars of the Argonath, and Dimrill Dale. I'll drink to that!


You can use your US driver’s license to rent a campervan in NZ… just make sure you can keep it on the left! Took me forever to approach the correct door, never mind piloting roundabouts without catastrophe. When in doubt, remember, “Bum on the line!”

Wanaka Lake from Roy's Peak Hike

Day 8 — Wanaka Lake Bike Ride and Duckies

Another highlight of our trip: biking around gorgeous Wanaka Lake and relaxing in the campground. As we pulled into our campsite by the river, a family of ducks waddled up before we even stopped the van. Mama duck presented her five little chatterers who greeted us with flagrant cuteness, as if to say, "Welcome to Albert Town Campground. Now don't forget the snacks!"

Tearing ourselves away from our feathered fans, we set out this perfect sunny day pedaling around the dazzling teal lake, stopping to lunch on a pebble bank where more ducks whooshed down from the sky seeking handouts. Zooming along shady trails, up and down rolling hills, beside sparkling rapids, I came down with a serious case of permagrin. We loved Wanaka so much, we stuck around another day. 


New Zealand summer is our winter, so while we're bundled up sipping hot cocoa, Kiwis are basking in the sun and enjoying long holidays from Christmas to the second week of January. And be warned, it’s pretty much the whole country at once! Campsites get snatched up faster than seagulls on a French fry, and many businesses are closed. If you're planning a trip around Christmas, make plans and reservations well in advance.

Overlook of Wanaka Lake from Roy's Peak Hike

Day 9 – Wanaka Lake and Roy’s Peak Hike

Next morning, we hiked Roy’s Peak per isite suggestion. The hike to the mountaintop climbed steeply, past fluffy sheep and bleating lambs grazing on steep hillsides and brave locals base-jumping the cliffs. With a scorching day in the forecast, we set out early to beat the heat. Despite Roy’s popularity, we didn’t feel overly crowded, aside from the mandatory photo op overlook. 

Oh the technicolor beauty! The panoramic views seen the whole way up and back down! Pictures don’t capture the magic, though I tried repeatedly, every few steps, literally taking hundreds of photos. From the picturesque town far below, to the vast blue lake with not one boat disturbing its glassy serenity, to the majestic mountains surrounding us on all sides — the sheer magnificence is truly hard to grasp.  

After this glorious hike, we returned to camp, but then decided to drive another hour or two to move closer to the next destination, eventually landing at Glendhu Bay Motor Camp.


You don’t have to drive much each day. The entire country, North and South Islands combined, is basically the size of Colorado, so you can move camp each day and still enjoy hours of sightseeing. 

Hooker Valley Track to Tasman Glacier by Mount Cook

Day 10 – Lake Pukaki, Mount Cook, and Tasman Glacier

Windy app showed storm clouds over Mount Cook, so we had a choice. As a Lord of the Rings fan, I simply had to see Mount Cook, or at least try, and luckily my travel buddy agreed. We headed northwest, quickly hitting a storm, but we pressed on desperately hoping it would clear. Unbelievably, moments after settling in at our campsite, the downpour slowed to a drip. With rain jackets and optimism, we jumped out and hiked straight up Hooker Valley Track to the Tasman Glacier at the foot of majestic Mount Cook, known to the Māori as Aoraki or "the sky father." 

Unfortunately we had to imagine the glory of Aoraki who remained cloaked in clouds that day and never graced us with his presence. Nevertheless the glacier lake's natural ice sculptures surrounded by misty mountains, as well as the beautiful hike itself, put this one on my top five list. 

That night at the Hooker Valley trailhead, the rain and wind returned with a vengeance, pounding and shaking our van violently. Those poor girls camped next to us in a wind-blasted, small, sad, soaked tent made me extra grateful for the comfort of van life.


Pack for all types of weather, as the South Island can be quite cold in the winter, wildly variable in the summer, and wet all year around.

Lake Tekapo with Lupine and the Southern Alps

Day 11 — Lake Tekapo and Tekapo Springs

On our last full day, we hit the road, leaving Mount Cook still hidden in the clouds behind. Next stop: the absolutely breathtaking Lake Tekapo and Tekapo Springs. As we arrived, the aqua-colored water of the lake served as a mesmerizing canvas for the vibrant lupine flowers dancing in the foreground. 

We stopped at our last fill station to take care of business while gazing at the jaw-dropping view of the lake against the Southern Alps. Then, the perfect way to wrap up 12 days of driving, hiking, exploring, boating, and biking in the sun, wind, and rain, we enjoyed a relaxing break at Tekapo Springs. Ah, soaking in blissful warm pools with stunning views… pure paradise.

For our last campsite, we stopped at Winslow Canterbury, just a small meadow by a stream. With nobody but us and the cheerful chirping of birds, it was the perfect place to reflect on our incredible adventure.


You'll find plenty of dump and fill stations in New Zealand, many of them free. Here's another way Rankers app has you covered: with dump/fill station info and locations on the handy map. OTOH, if you're traveling without self-contained amenities, you'll also find loads of public toilets in New Zealand, so you're never very far from a potty break! 

Another gorgeous lake in New Zealand

Day 12 — Hinds River, Sharplin Falls, and Mad Dash to Christchurch

Alas, the dreaded last day of our adventure arrived, and we were in serious denial. We foolishly tried to squeeze in every last drop of fun before our van return deadline at 1pm. 

We raced up a steep hike at Hinds River, then bolted to Sharplin Falls Reserve for another quick trek, running down the clock more than we could afford. Yet we somehow couldn't resist stopping at a few more picturesque overlooks along the way. 

When reality finally hit us, we blasted back to Christchurch to avoid the late-return fee. Even sillier, we hadn’t really finished packing or cleaned the van for return! So my trusty buddy sped us west like Fast and Furious 13, while I bounced around in the back, packing bags and quick cleaning without getting bashed in the head.

Miraculously, we survived the mad dash to Christchurch on time, or close enough to avoid a late fee anyway. Unfortunately, however, we did have to cough up NZ $600 to repair a scratch down the side of the van that neither of us could account for. Must have been those hungry ducklings at Wanaka Lake.


Driving a vehicle of this size on the wrong side of the road saps your mental energy which can lead to exhaustion and accidents. Watch out for scratchy branches, and of course take pics of existing damage when you pick up your van to avoid inappropriate charges. And finally, give yourself plenty of time to clean, pack, and return your rental. 

If you love exploring the world’s natural wonders campervan-style, New Zealand freedom camping may be calling you to the other side of the world. Life is short, and we’re always just one pandemic away from worldwide lockdown, so don't wait for someday! Start planning your Kiwi campervan adventure now. You're sure to get a warm welcome.

 Ducklings at Albert Town Camp near Wanaka Lake

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What an incredible voyage—narrated with such style and flair. Love it!

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