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Exploring New Zealand’s South Island by camper van

Situated on Lake Wakatipu, Queenstown is a bucket list destination for adventurers. Photo by Taras Vyshnya/Alamy Stock Photo

My cheery yellow camper van crests the rim of an ancient caldera, and I laugh in surprised delight as a living postcard appears before me.

Lush farmland ripples gently downslope toward a sailboat-flecked bay that’s so surreally blue—a product of fine silt particles left by glacial erosion—that it almost glows from within. Somewhere in the distance is today’s destination, the garden-like township of Akaroa.

For the first time in a while, giddiness sweeps over me. I scan the twisting road ahead for a pullout and snap the first of what will eventually be—I kid you not—more than 3,000 photos of New Zealand’s stunning South Island.

I’ve always loved a road trip, though mine are typically much shorter and rarely involve bucket list wonders like exploring glowworm caves and heli-hiking glaciers.

Remote and rugged, the South Island is built for epic adventures, squeezing moody fiords, pristine rainforests, towering alps, dramatic coasts, and some of the planet’s most distinctive wildlife into a landmass roughly one-third the size of California.

Driving its winding, well-paved roads has long been considered both a local rite of passage and one of the most intimate ways for visitors to take it all in.

But a lot has changed between when I planned this trip—originally scuppered in 2020 by a certain global crisis, then revived when the country reopened for tourism in July 2022—and when I first fired up the camper van in Christchurch this morning.

For one, I’ve just turned 40, a natural reflection point. And, several months ago, I unexpectedly lost my mother.

By nature, I’m pretty buoyant. The ability to find joy just about anywhere is a gift from Mom, actually. But everything has felt so heavy lately. To be honest, I’m a little lost, and for once it has nothing to do with my infamously bad sense of direction.

And so, despite my ambitious 12-day itinerary spanning 1,300 miles and a “must see” list longer than a CVS receipt, I’m no longer exactly sure what I’m looking for on this journey.

Maybe it’s some life-affirming truth about the world; maybe just a beautiful, much-needed distraction. But the uncertainty of the past few years has inspired me not to wait any longer to find out.

Woman standing behind a camper van parked next to the water.

Traveling by camper van allows road trippers to immerse themselves in the South Island's picturesque landscapes. Photo by Caroline Foster

In a sunny Christchurch parking lot, I meet Lefty—the Nissan Vanette I’d instantly nicknamed to remind me what side of the road to drive on—and find she’s a real pro. 

Her benches convert into a comfy full-size bed; her kitted-out kitchen space boasts a propane burner and running water. There’s plenty of storage, and her battery holds enough juice that I don’t need to plug in overnight.

All this is stowed in a 13-by-5 1/2-foot frame that I am eminently capable of both parallel parking and piloting through a 3-point turn.

Typically, if it involves camping, I can count my boyfriend in. A work conflict, however, has left him back in New Orleans and me embarking on this trip solo.

But I’m a confident driver (many an ashen-faced passenger might say too confident), and I’m looking forward to what long-haul truckers call “windshield time,” quiet hours on the road to gather my thoughts.

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A map showing the author's route through South Island.

The author's route along New Zealand's South Island. Map by Eric Van Eyke

The evening of Day 1 brings me to my first stop: the Pōhatu Marine Reserve just outside of Akaroa. I’ve joined a group tour, and we’ve just finished bottle-feeding a flock of lambs that look like stuffed animals come to life.

A bit later, a conservationist will help us spot the stars of the show: little penguins hopping ashore in the twilight. But first, there’s the wooden nesting box before us, one of 250 studding the hillside.

We crowd closer in anticipation, unsure of what we’ll find as our guide gently lifts the lid. There, peering up from the shadows, is the gray fluffball face of a penguin chick. I can’t help but coo softly and be thoroughly charmed by this magical place.

I spend the next perfect morning and afternoon strolling Akaroa’s quaint waterfront and cruising its bay for Hector’s dolphins, a tiny and rare species found only here.

By the evening of Day 2, as I make my way to Tekapo Springs, I discover a bonus of Lefty’s diminutive size: less wind resistance. Rain lashes Lefty in 30-mph gusts. Semitrucks pull over for safety. My knuckles whiten.

Google Maps assured me this 175-mile drive—the longest on my itinerary—would take about 3 1/2 hours, but I’m creeping north of 5. I’m slated to view the island’s world-class dark skies from a luxurious hot pool, but I may not make it. Turns out, I’ve fallen into a common trap.

Between unpredictable weather, steep highways, and enchanting locales that practically beg travelers to stay an extra day, the South Island is the type of place that eats best-laid plans for brekkie.

“That’s probably the biggest mistake first-timers make, trying to cram a lot in,” Andy Haslett later reassures me by phone. As managing director of Mad Campers and Lefty’s real dad, he’s seen it all. “My advice is to just feel it out and be prepared to knock some things off your list.”

Indeed, I nix the stargazing tour and continue to my Glentanner Park Centre campsite at the foot of Aoraki–Mount Cook. A steady drizzle patters gently on the roof as I begrudgingly pull down my sleep mask and drift off several hours earlier than expected.

The next morning, sunshine streams through the van’s back curtains. Just outside, I spy a Disney-like live-action scene, with bunnies frolicking beneath an actual rainbow. My early night means I now have time to hike one of the Southern Alps’ most iconic trails: the Hooker Valley Track.

One of Mom’s favorite songs, “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” comes to mind. She and Broadway duo Rodgers and Hammerstein were right: At the end of the storm, there is a golden sky.

Man walking on Fox Glacier, a helicopter perched on the edge of the formation.

Exploring Fox Glacier on New Zealand's South Island. Photo by Jessica Fender

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Trading road for fiord

Over the next few days, I coast 300 miles south along the sun-dappled Ōmarama basin, through tony adventure capital Queenstown and beyond.

With storms far in the rearview and vistas of mountain-ringed finger lakes and red tussock–pocked hills before me, the windshield time has been superb, aided by the audio version of an old favorite, The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, and more than one spontaneous car karaoke session.

Nonetheless, when I board the Fiordland Navigator for an overnight cruise of Doubtful Sound, I raise a glass of champagne, toasting both a break from driving and my private cabin with an en suite bathroom that feels gorgeously extravagant after the open road. (No offense, Lefty.)

Kayakers in Doubtful Sound.

Kayakers ply the waters of Doubtful Sound. Photo by Jessica Fender

Fourteen sounds—technically fiords gouged by glaciers—fringe the island’s southwest corner and are mainland New Zealand’s most remote landscapes. Of the 2 reachable by land, Doubtful is the lesser trafficked.

To meet our ship, I and about 60 other passengers ferried across Lake Manapouri and then bused via gravel service road over Wilmot Pass. Once at sea, we don rain jackets and file on deck to marvel at sleety blue islands emerging from the mist and Ansel Adams–worthy plays of light along the granite corridor.

Except for a handful of fishing boats, a smattering of rare Fiordland crested penguins, and the fur seals cavorting at the mouth of the Tasman Sea, we’ve got this wild landscape to ourselves.

For the next 24 hours, we dine together, learn from a naturalist about Doubtful’s ecological wonders, kayak along the fiord’s craggy coastline, and—a brave few of us—splash into the 55-degree water for the quickest of dips. As we near the docks once more, our captain finds a sheltered place to pause.

The Māori named this fiord Patea, or “Place of Silence.” But the instant the ship’s engine switches off, we’re awash in sound.

Cascades roar thousands of feet down dramatic cliffs. Tiny rivulets drip and trickle through mats of neon moss. Clarion verses of bellbirds ring out from within the ferns of the surrounding rainforest. And the tea-black water calms to a perfect mirror, reflecting the whole glorious tapestry back up at a moody sky.

Those familiar chills of delight tiptoe across my shoulder blades. How easy it would have been to miss this, I think, grateful for this gentle reminder to slow down and be present.

In her own way, it’s a lesson Mom had been trying to teach me for years, whether it was pouring us each one more cup of coffee at her kitchen counter or breaking up my hectic workday with an out-of-the-blue call just to catch up. I try to let it sink in this time, and soon find myself taking that approach with other people, too.

It’s 140 miles later at a campground in the ski town of Wānaka, and my happy hour setup out of Lefty’s back hatch is looking particularly picturesque in the golden hour light. My tripod, however, has just toppled over for a third time.

“Can I help?” calls fellow solo traveler Peter Meads in a friendly Kiwi accent. With a wave, he picks up his pace in my direction.

Over beers and hummus, I learn that the Auckland retiree and world traveler is partway through his own weeks-long camper van journey. National tourism officials estimate 175,000 visitors a year explore New Zealand by camper van. That’s atop a robust cadre of Kiwis doing the same. So it’s not hard to find community here.

I could car camp on some of the island’s public lands for free; Lefty’s gray water tank and cassette toilet mean she’s technically fit for freedom camping. As a lover of ease and hot showers, however, I gravitate to the many holiday parks, campgrounds that offer shared kitchens, laundry machines, and Wi-Fi. They’re also ideally suited to making new friends.

Before we part, Peter gives me a laundry list of great hikes for my brief stopover in Auckland as well as his contact info, should I need anything on the road. Though I don’t tell him, his kindness and our chat were just what I needed to stave off a rare spell of homesickness.

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Going with the flow

Most of my friends back home would call me a type A personality. If there is small stuff, I will gladly sweat it. Those tendencies only wound tighter following Mom’s death, the ultimate reminder of how little control I truly have over the world.

Out here on the road, I begin to feel a loosening of sorts, an unfurling. With the passing of each mile, ceding the reins to fate has seemed less like something to fear and more like an act of hope. And, as I head up the scenic west coast, I find myself abandoning my “must see” checklist for a “let’s go see” attitude.

“Trek to a secluded waterfall?” the point-of-interest sign tempts.


“Explore a random roadside cave?”

Yes, please!

Suspension bridge looming over the water of Hokitika Gorge.

A suspension bridge spans the Hokitika Gorge. Photo by Jessica Fender

On a whim, I veer half an hour off course for a morning hike around Hokitika Gorge. A gentle trail leads me through fern-fringed gullies, across vertigo-inducing bridges, and past small cascades. 

Rounding a bend, I come face-to-face with luminously turquoise water flowing through a white rock valley. All at once I’m walloped by a rush of that indomitable joy and, somehow simultaneously, a profound sadness that I can’t share this with Mom. I hike down to the waterline and find a comfortable boulder. Feels like I should sit for a minute.

Late that afternoon, I pull up to a sandy beach in Punakaiki, pop open the side door, and reach for my book. Yes, I have 250 miles to Picton and a day and a half to get there. But I can’t resist one last seaside sunset before I head inland.

Pancake Rocks flank a waterway in Punakalki.

A short paved trail leads to views of Pancake Rocks—so named for their layers of limestone—in Punakalki. Photo by Daniel/

By the time the sun begins its descent, I’ve made my way to Pancake Rocks, the town’s main attraction. Boardwalks snake through stately towers of layered limestone, which are rapidly turning golden in the beachy haze.

Far below, the Tasman Sea thunders into craggy blowholes, sending fine spray skyward. Cotillions of terns swirl into the wind and settle. Swirl, then settle.

The rhythm is mesmerizing, and I stay long enough for the first few streaks of purple to seep into the sky.

Surely, this sense of peace must be what I came looking for. Right?

Honestly, even days later when my road trip ends, I’m still not sure. 

If any one place could heal me, it’s this wild and dazzling island, with its kind people and humbling natural beauty. It’s given me both time to think and my first moments of sheer joy since Mom passed.

But grief has no cure; it only changes over time. And so, if I leave here with a renewed sense of wonder, a brighter spirit, and 3,000 photos, I’ve found more than enough.

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Award-winning journalist Jessica Fender blogs about her adventures at

If you go

Getting there

Air New Zealand recently reintroduced direct flights from LAX to Auckland, on the North Island. From there, it’s about an 80-minute flight to Christchurch, the largest city on the South Island. But the flagship carrier’s robust domestic schedule means road-trippers can begin and end in more than a dozen cities across New Zealand.

Camper van details

Camper van with an open trunk, showing its storage areas.

Holiday parks offer amenities such as shared kitchens and Wi-Fi. Photo by Jessica Fender

Options range from tricked-out hatchbacks to full-size RVs. Mad Campers’ line of cleverly appointed vanettes offers plenty of storage and sleep space for 2.

New Zealand has hundreds of holiday parks and public camping areas. Book ahead during the summer high season, roughly November through March. Free-camping travelers should familiarize themselves with local regulations and leave-no-trace protocols before overnighting.

Tourism New Zealand’s website offers itinerary suggestions and rates operators through its Qualmark system. Apps like Campermate list essentials like campsites, gas stations, and dumping stations.

After camping

On your way home, splash out on a quality hotel like the luxurious Park Hyatt Auckland. Nothing feels better after a road trip than a soaking tub and high-thread-count sheets. Rates start at about $290.

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