James Kerstan is a travel and landscape photographer from Tasmania who discovered that New Zealand boasts stunning photo opportunities around every bend in the road. He travelled with a photographer friend for a whistle-stop week in the South Island.
Christchurch to Christchurch
Best Time of the Year
all year round
- Lake Pukaki
- Mount Cook
- Lake Tekapo
- Milford Sound
Christchurch to Lake Pukaki
Distance 288km - Driving Time 3 hours 30 mins
After picking up the Britz Venturer from the great team in Christchurch we had plans to start our journey with a trip to Franz Josef. Luckily we checked the weather first and found out that it was forecast rain for the next few days. We made a quick change of plans and headed to Lake Tekapo instead. WOW Tekapo is amazing! No words can explain just how awesome it is to see clear skies with the aqua blue waters and the snowcapped mountains behind the lake for the first time.
We spent a few hours exploring the shore before we headed to the Church of the Good Shepherd to capture a sunset photo, then to Lake Pukaki where we cooked dinner and had our very first freedom camping experience on the lake's edge for the night.
Lake Pukaki to Milford Sound
Distance 496km - Driving Time 3 hours 30 mins
After a warm night camping on the lake's edge we woke up early to cook our bacon and eggs breakfast in the camper. Knowing that we couldn’t see any of the lake or mountains last night due to darkness, we set off and explored the lake and ventured further into the Mount Cook region for a bit of quick sight-seeing before we turned around for our six and a half hour trip to Milford Sound. The day was spent mostly on the road in awe of all the awesome views we passed along the way.
The drive got really interesting once we had passed Te Anau and ventured further into Fiordland National Park. As it was an overcast rainy day, we weren’t expecting the views to be that good (in fact we almost considered skipping Milford Sound because of this) but it was quite the opposite. Every corner we turned there would be either gigantic cascades of water falling hundreds of metres from the tops of mountains, snow surrounding you on mountains, or aqua blue rivers rushing below the road. This was very different to what we are used to back home and it just made the experience so much better. We were restricted with time as we really wanted to get to the water's edge for sunset. We finally made it to the water's edge right on time and witnessed probably one of the best sunsets of the trip. Once the sun had set, we drove back to the Milford Sound Caravan Park where we had dinner and settled in for the night.
Milford Sound to Nugget Point Lighthouse
Distance 353km - Driving Time 4 hours 30 mins
An early sunrise had us awake at 4 am. After a short two-minute drive from the caravan park to the water's edge, we headed out to the shores of Milford Sound to get the first light hitting the giant mountains surrounded by water. It was a surreal experience being one of only a few people there; it was very quiet and peaceful.
After our sunrise shoot, we made a quick stop back at the caravan park to have probably the best shower of the trip, these showers were so good – they even had heated towel rails! I mean seriously, I would never expect to see heated towel rails at a caravan park, but I’m not complaining.
Our plan to stop at all the rivers and waterfalls along the way out was quickly cancelled by the harsh light and lack of water as there wasn’t a cloud in sight. (I’ve been told that it’s quite rare to get a clear day in Milford Sound.) We spent the day with a four and a half hour drive to Nugget Point Lighthouse where we would capture sunrise the next morning. We arrived at Kaka Point Campground where we stayed the night.
Nugget Point Lighthouse to Wanaka
Distance 258km - Driving Time 3 hours 15 mins
This morning's sunrise had us up again at 4am, we headed to Nugget Point Lighthouse and it just happened to be one of the best sunrises for the trip. We met another photographer from England who was also on the road in a Britz Campervan! We had a great chat about how fun New Zealand is and how campervanning is truly the best way to travel the South Island. We finished our sunrise shoot and headed straight back on the road again for another 3.5 hour trip to Wanaka.
I’ve been to a fair few different cities abroad but Wanaka just happens to be my favourite of them all. It’s hard to explain but it seems to have a laidback and relaxed atmosphere around it. We stopped by a restaurant and got some fish and chips to take away and then headed back to the camper to enjoy our dinner at the lake's edge. It was at that moment we knew that it wouldn’t be a photographer's trip to New Zealand if we didn’t stop by the most famous tree in the country and get the iconic shot of ‘That Wanaka Tree.’ Once we knew we had the shot, we left for the Wanaka Top Ten Holiday Park where we received the best service of the trip from the park's reception. We set up the camper, had dinner and spent the night watching TV while editing some photos from the trip so far.
Wanaka to Lake Pukaki
Distance 166km - Driving Time 2 hours
A rainy morning meant that we finally got our first sleep-in for the trip! A few hours later we got up and had breakfast before heading off to the Puzzle World, this place is definitely one of the tourist highlights of the trip. Upon entering we received warnings from the staff members there that we might feel sick when entering the 15 degree room. I thought nothing of it and proceeded straight in. I was soon to find out that they were definitely right; I entered the room and instantly felt seasick, but that was OK though since we were having so much fun and amazed that we could actually see water running up hill!
We continued on to the rest of the Wonderful World of Weirdness through the maze to the end and set off for Mount Cook. On our way, we passed a sign that said, “Have a Shot” and knew we had to stop by and get our trip fix of shooting, not cameras but guns. We set ourselves a challenge and the loser had to cook dinner that night. I am a pretty bad shot and completely lost the challenge. After swallowing my pride we actually set off for the final leg of the day to get to Mount Cook. The rest of the day was spent exploring the area, we were planning on doing the Hooker Valley track as well but sadly we ran out of daylight and decided to leave it until our next trip. We shot sunset at Peter’s Lookout and then headed to Glentanner Holiday Park Mount Cook to set up camp for the night.
Lake Pukaki to Franz Josef
Distance 437km - Driving Time 5 hours
We checked the weather the night before and knew there wasn’t going to be a good sunrise so we decided to have another sleep-in. That is until 4am when I heard the sound of my alarm that I forgot to turn off the night before. I decided to look through the window to check the conditions for sunrise and the weather report was completely wrong! We quickly got up, packed the camper and set off to get the first light hitting Mount Cook in the morning. We saw the last light hitting the mountain the night before but WOW, it looks absolutely amazing – and far better – at first light!
The good light was over so we spent a few more hours exploring the region and then headed back to the caravan park for a catch-up on the sleep that we missed before. During the afternoon we decided to head to Franz Josef to get a heli tour to the glacier.
It’s amazing how much the scenery can change. We came from driving mountainous terrains to seeming like we were driving through the heart of ancient forests. We arrived at Franz Josef only to find out that all flights to the glacier had been cancelled due to weather conditions. So that too was put on the list for our next trip. After hearing the bad news we decided to head to Campervan Park Franz Josef to settle in for the night.
Franz Josef to Christchurch
Distance 357km - Driving Time 5 hours
Waking up in Franz Josef it was still raining and we confirmed again that there definitely weren't any heli tours running, so we decided to treat ourselves by going out for breakfast at The Landing. I’m not sure if it was because I was still half asleep or the fact that I only had instant coffee for the whole trip but these guys made the best coffee I had in New Zealand. To top it off with pancakes and a side of bacon, it was probably the best breakfast too. After breakfast we decided to head back to the campsite, pack up our camper and make our way to Christchurch.
Our trip went through Arthur’s Pass, which was a very pleasant scenic drive through mountains and over rivers. We stopped at all the scenic lookouts along the way in awe of the amazing views and I strongly suggest you to do the same if you ever drive through Arthur’s Pass. Our final part of the drive was heading back to Christchurch where we stayed the night at Amber Kiwi Holiday Park and Motel. It was a sad feeling, but we then returned our Britz Venturer campervan the next morning and flew home.
Where was the best view?
This is a hard question since there is a new view around every corner. If I had to narrow it down to one place I would definitely say the drive into Milford Sound through Fiordland National Park.
Where did you stop for a picnic?
If you can call it a picnic, we stopped at Wanaka and had some fish and chips with the back doors open to the lake's edge.
Where was your favourite place/town visited and why?
Wanaka. It’s hard to explain but it just has a good feeling with every part of it. Whether it’s the live music at restaurants or the calmness sitting at the lake's edge.
Driving the road around Lake Pukaki for the first time during the day and seeing the massive mountains surrounding Mount Cook. Seeing the aqua blue waters of Lake Tekapo for the very first time. Driving through giant mountains on the way to Milford Sound.
Best café for coffee?
The Landing, Franz Josef Glacier.
Did you have a favourite Holiday Park you stayed in and why?
I had two: the first would have to be Top Ten Holiday Park in Wanaka for their amazing customer service and clean facilities, and the second would have to be Milford Sound Caravan Park for their almost first class facilities and customer service.
What would be your top tip for other campervan travellers?
Something I wish I had done is take it slow! Don’t try to see the whole South Island in a week like we did. Yes, you can do it, but you will enjoy the place more if you take your time. In fact I’m planning another trip back already and at this stage I’m looking at 2-3 weeks for the whole South Island.
Can you share a recipe from something you cooked in the campervan?
Probably the tastiest recipe of the trip would have to be egg and bacon wraps for breakfast. Cook up some eggs and bacon, chuck it in a wrap with some tomato or barbecue sauce and you have the quickest and easiest breakfast ever.
What is your greatest memory of the whole campervan holiday?
My greatest memory will be the feeling of seeing the aqua blue waters of Lake Tekapo with the snowcapped mountains behind it for the first time. It will be a memory I will never forget.