Words by Laurie Winter
At the end of April, I embarked on a 7-day camper trip around the lower South Island. I’m a photographer in my spare time, and my aim was to head south to capture some of the amazing autumn colours that Otago has to offer. I’m so lucky that photography takes me to some of the most beautiful spots in New Zealand! I hired a Venturer for my friend and I, a model I have used previously and always found to be fantastic for my needs, spacious but still small enough to easily go wherever I want to go. I love the flexibility of camper travel, as it means I can follow the good weather and chase the best light.
Christchurch to Queenstown
Best Time of the Year
- Milford Sound
- West Coast
- Haast Pass
- Lake Matheson
- Marion Falls
Christchurch to Queenstown
Distance 478km - Driving Time 6 hours
We arrived in Christchurch, with the original plan of heading just a short distance to Aoraki/Mt Cook National Park. Unfortunately, the weather forecast was for a storm, and with gale winds, I knew we weren’t going to get the pictures we were after. As a photographer, a lot of my time is spent analysing weather forecasts, and we could see that Milford Sound was the only place with good weather in the coming few days. We decided to drive south, with a plan to stop in Queenstown and keep driving the next morning. We picked up our 2-bed Venturer Camper from the airport depot with little hassle, and some great conversation with the lovely lady who helped us. After stocking up with food in Christchurch, we got straight on the road. Day 1 was largely uneventful, with a long drive to get to Milford.
Queenstown to Milford
Distance 290km - Driving Time 4 hours 30 mins
We awoke in our DOC campsite to drizzly rain, but with the promise of improving the weather. We spent the day enjoying the beautiful drive to Milford Sound. As impressive as Milford is, the journey is definitely just as nice as the destination! Along the way we stopped in Te Anau for coffee, and then numerous times along the road into Milford Sound. Some not-to-be-missed sights are: Mirror Lakes for stunning mountain reflections on a still day, the Homer Tunnel for expansive mountainous views and some cheeky kea action, and Marion Falls with its impressive volume of water tumbling over huge rocks and boulders. Being constantly side-tracked by the beauty, we arrived into Milford Sound only shortly before sunset. I raced to the waterfront just in time to watch the sky explode in a short but sweet display of fiery orange.
We stayed at: Milford Sound Lodge ($60 for a powered site for two people).
We were up reasonably early and headed down to the waterfront again for sunrise photography in the Sound. It was very windy, so it was tricky to find a spot for the reflections I love so much. Luckily there were moments where the wind died off, but with clear skies, it wasn’t really the conditions I dreamed of. After sunrise we went back to our campground for breakfast, before we headed off to explore the area some more. We checked out the views from Homer Tunnel again, spending far too long being amused by the antics of the kea who love to interact with the traffic there (please don’t feed them though!). We headed off for lunch at Lake Gunn, and spent some time photographing the Hollyford River. We decided to walk up to Key Summit for sunset and started the roughly one-hour hike around 3pm. We enjoyed some stunning views on the hike to the summit, only for thick, low cloud to surround us in every direction right on sunset. Always must take the good with the bad in photography!
We stayed at: Milford Sound Lodge ($60 for a powered site for two people)
Distance 600km - Driving Time 8 hours
After another sunrise in Milford Sound, we got on the road early for what was going to be a long day driving to Lake Matheson, near the township of Fox Glacier on the West Coast. Most of the day was spent driving, though I admit I just couldn’t resist an hour or so hanging out with the kea at Homer Tunnel again. We took some road shots leaving Milford, and then had a drive around Queenstown to look at the autumn colours. Unfortunately, a lot of the leaves had blown off the trees in the storm a few days prior, so I had to once again adjust my expectations for photography! We enjoyed a pastel sunset at Lake Hayes before continuing our journey. We arrived quite late into Fox Glacier, and spent little time getting ourselves to bed, anticipating an early start the next morning.
We stayed at: Top 10 Fox Glacier Holiday Park ($45 for a powered site for two people)
Fox Glacier to Wanaka
Distance 265km - Driving Time 3 hours 30 mins
We reluctantly got out of bed around 4:30am, and headed for Lake Matheson, as I wanted to grab a few shots of the stars before sunrise. We hiked the 40 minutes in the dark to the famous viewing spot. The full moon made it tricky to capture the starry sky but made for some amazing moonlit photos. The stillness of the lake, and the quietness of the pre-dawn hours is really something quite special. Shortly before sunrise, we were joined by a lot of other photographers hoping to catch some lovely light and reflections. I am thinking I need to start chasing the bad weather, as we again had clear sky photography, which can lack a little interest. After quite a few hours in at the lake, we went back to the carpark and set up our table for an outdoor breakfast with a view in the warm sunshine. We then spent the day driving back to Wanaka, with numerous stops along the way, including Lakes Paringa and Moeraki, Thunder Creek Falls, and a short adventure to a wee secret waterfall a friend had told me about.
We stayed at: Wanaka Lake View Holiday Park ($40 for a powered site for two people).
Wanaka to Mount Cook
Distance 210km - Driving Time 2 hours 30 mins
Another early start beckoned, and we set off for an hour and a half hike up Rocky Mountain, just outside of Wanaka. The hike up was quite rugged and muddy, but we arrived just as the sun began to rise. The views from the top are beautiful, with something to look at in every direction. The hike is also much quicker and easier than walking up to the now over-popular Roy’s Peak, and we also had the spot to ourselves for most of the time we were there. After hiking down we treated ourselves to an award-winning pie on the Wanaka waterfront, before heading towards Mt Cook. After short stops along the way, including at the top of the beautiful Lindis Pass, we made our way into the Aoraki/Mt Cook National Park. We found a spot along the road to Mt Cook to take photos as the last light of the day began to fade, before heading into the village for a much-needed meal and cold beer!
We stayed at: Freedom camped at designated camping spot at Lake Wardell, Twizel.
Twizel to Queenstown
Distance 200km - Driving Time 2 hours 30 mins
Sunrise was at Lake Ruataniwha in Twizel, and finally we got the beautiful pink clouds we’d been seeking all week! We took photos of the mountains, with their fresh dusting of snow, and visited a few of the tiny lakes in the Twizel area. Afterwards we went to Lake Pukaki where photographed the beautiful golden colours of the trees along the lake edge. As the morning progressed, the clouds thickened, and we drove without stopping to Queenstown. In Queenstown we paid a visit to the stunning Shotover Canyon, before heading to a family member’s house for an amazing home cooked meal. After dinner, we drove to our campsite and began sadly packing up the camper for its return the next morning. Brewing a pot of delicious mulled cider helped to warm our insides and cheer us up, as another photography trip came to an end.
We stayed at: Twelve Mile Delta DOC Conservation Campsite, Queenstown.
Distance 30km - Driving Time 30 mins
One last sunrise at Lake Hayes, before an easy and hassle-free drop off at the Queenstown Depot, before the flight home to Wellington. Thanks Britz for helping make our journey so memorable!
Road trip highlights