I heard New Zealand was extremely expensive. I heard under a week was a pointless amount of time to even attempt the roads of either island. I heard the roads were hilly and narrow. It seemed like everything was telling me I was an idiot to try to tackle a road trip in a country that didn’t even drive on the same side of the street as I was used to.
So, naturally, I did it.
I rented a camper van from Jucy Car Rentals, the cheapest option I could find with half-decent reviews (I don’t usually go off of reviews, to be honest, because any idiot can sit behind a computer and write something… but when it came to driving, I wanted to be a little more cautious). For 6 days with a camper van (which included a bed and a mini-kitchen) with full insurance, it would run me about 800 USD. Without full insurance, it would have been somewhere around 650. But once again, I wasn’t willing to risk it. Not exactly budget friendly, either way.
I arrived to Queenstown airport after spending a few days in Queenstown, signed paperwork accepting full responsibility of any damages, was so terrified I was about to piss myself, and I was led into a parking lot where my cute little camper van awaited for me.
CLARITY: Yes, it was a “camper van,” as in it had a bed, a kitchen, I could sleep in it, etc. But by American standards, it was 100% a mini van! This alone made me feel a little bit better about driving such a massive vehicle.
I got in the car and off I went.
After a few good minutes of having absolutely no clue where I was going, despite my GPS saying “In 600 meters, take the third exit on the roundabout” to which I replied, as if she could hear me, “I have no idea what you’re talking about,” I ended up on the proper highway and got the hang of it quickly.
I almost immediately fell in love.
New Zealand is a stunning country and every turn you take, you are hit with insane scenery, whether it be a mountain, a farm, a field of flowers, a herd of sheep, a milky sky, a crystal blue lake. I had already loved the atmosphere of the country but having the car sealed the deal.
I made my first stop at Arthur’s Point. Let me just say this: When they say twisty and turny roads, they’re not kidding. At first it was just a few turns, and yes, the roads are indeed narrow. But suddenly, you’re going uphill and you can’t exactly see what’s coming, so if you’re new to driving on the left side and you see a car in the distance, it feels like an optical illusion. On several occasions, I was convinced a car was coming for me head-on (never the reality). Drive slow when you’re unsure. I was completely okay with being the grandma on the road as long as it meant I was being safe.
After my little pitstop, I carried my way onto Wanaka. I had no idea where I was going to stay, but a lovely gent from the airport recommended the app CamperMate. Planning a road trip in New Zealand? DOWNLOAD THIS APP NOW. It helped me so much. It gives you a list of anything and everything in your designated area. At first, I didn’t realize why it would be necessary, but if you’re outside of a major city, New Zealand is quite desolated and everything is very spread out. This is why it’s recommended to have a car. (More on that later.)
I ended up finding a last minute spot at Wanaka Lakeview Holiday Park. How camper sites work is, you find a place you want to stay, you can either book in advance (I recommend this; a lot of places were sold out because I traveled during high season), and pay somewhere around 15-25 NZD a night (I stayed in Wanaka for two nights, it cost me 27 USD). They give you a designated camping area and it gives you access to showers, a kitchen, toilets, and a place to wash your dishes! Some places even offer laundry for a small fee (1 or 2 NZD).
I parked my car, got ready, and headed out to Wanaka Lavender Farms.
I walked through the lavender fields and felt like I was in heaven (’til I saw all the damn bees… but I mean, hey, that’s how flowers stay alive, right?). The smell alone was enough to make me happy enough to die there. I ended up purchasing a beautiful lavender “body silk” and “face moisturizer.” Fun fact: every employee working there was an expat on a working holiday visa. New Zealand is one of the easiest countries to get a working visa in. I wish I had done this sooner.
After the lavender farms, I headed to the grocery store as I made it a vow to myself to not spend a penny on outside food since I had the van. I bought:
4 pre-made veggie burgers
4 lamb steaks
A mix of leeks, carrots, cauliflower and red cabbage
2 bottles of wine (necessary)
2 red chili peppers
1 bag of scallions
1 red onion
Instant coffee (they had five levels of strength.. I chose number 5, of course)
^^ all of this for 45 USD.
And it truly did last me the entirety of my trip. The only other money I spent was on some gelato (4 USD), an ice cream cone (what can I say I have a thing for dairy? 2 USD), and a bowl of French fries (3 USD). For 7 days worth of food, it was more than a fair deal (one meal out in New Zealand will easily cost you 20 USD or more).
I headed back to my campsite, parked, and began to explore my new home for the next few days (the van!). I figured out the bedding situation, the kitchen, and I began to cook my lamb! I cooked all four lamb steaks and threw in some instant coffee and red wine for the sauce. I was loving van life. This trip made me someone who went from, to be honest, questioning the decision of those who try to live out of a damn car to, well, wanting to be a person who lives out of a damn car! I ate my lamb, drank a few glasses of red wine, and passed out under the stars.
In the morning I woke up and since I had one day left in Wanaka, I wanted to tackle a hike. I decided to go for Roy’s Peak. This is where my trail mix came in handy, along with my reusable water bottle (buy one, now!). Not only will a reusable water bottle save you money on buying plastic water bottles from the store, it will contribute to saving the environment.
You can read all about my adventure at Roy’s Peak here:
But if you want the spark notes, it was a hard hike, yet 100% worth it. I recommend it to everyone.
Once Roy’s Peak was done, I drove back to my camping site, and can hardly remember a thing. I was wiped. I reheated some of the lamb, ate it up quickly, drove into town to get some gelato, drove back, and passed. the. f. out.
In the morning, when I woke up, I made some of my delicious instant coffee (I’m not kidding when I say it was a life saver), and got on the road. Goodbye Wanaka!
I was headed toward Mount Cook, and I once again, had no idea where I would be staying. I was incredibly exhausted from the hike the day before that I just decided to take my time on the way over there. The estimated arrival time was 2 hours 28 minutes, but it ended up taking me closer to 5 hours because of all of the beauty to behold.
I found myself stopping at Lake Pukaki, and because I had no idea where I was, I assumed I was at Lake Tekapo, based on instagram posts I had seen. Nope! Pukaki was the landmark. And I was in love. So I checked out CamperMate from there and saw a place directly on the lake. I booked it.
I arrived to my destination and parked the car for the night. I drank some wine, cooked the little bit of lamb I had left, and passed out fairly early.
On my first full day in the Aoraki/Mt. Cook region, I headed to…well, Mount Cook, of course!
I was told to do the Hooker Valley Track. It was apparently a three-hour return trip and for the most part, on flat land.
I arrived to WhiteHorse Camping Base (Where everyone parks, allegedly), and headed off to hike.
I wasn’t totally right in the head on this day; I had hit the two week marks of traveling, and driving through the middle of nowhere everyday was starting to settle in. I love it, don’t get me wrong, but my brain started to do more damage than good. I felt drained despite having slept a bit, and mentally a little tired. Nature often helps that.
Not in this case, unfortunately.
I think, on any other day, I would’ve loved this hike. But at the time, I looked at it, and all I saw were..rocks. Just rocks. And I eventually though, ya know what? I’m going to climb some rocks! I was in neon shorts, a blouse, and spikey silver earrings, but I was hellbent on climbing some rocks. I found an area that was clearly not meant for “climbing,” and thought, “Here’s my chance!”
I ran up those rocks like a tidal wave was chasing me. I want to say I used my selfie stick as a walking stick! I made it to the top and snapped some photos. Then I looked down and thought…how the hell am I supposed to get down from here?
I slowly slid down, and I eventually made it. The adrenaline from “climbing the rocks” had turned into pure lethargy, and truthfully, I just wanted to go home.
So, in conclusion for Mount Cook, I never did the Hooker Valley trail. Instead, I drove. I drove and drove and drove. And this is an important thing to talk about, because it’s important to listen to your mind / body. I didn’t want to fulfill something strictly for saying I fulfilled it, despite what we are programmed to do. I wanted to drive. And I hate driving.
And guess what? My day ended up pretty rad. I ended up in a small town called Twizel. I stopped to get gas and learned gas is extremely expensive (91 NZD to fill a tank, yikes). I got a “pottle of chips,” aka a small cup of French fries. I went to the grocery store and bought a bottle of wine, and in the wine aisle a couple said to me, “You were the girl taking all of the selfies at Mount Cook!” Small world.
I ended up back at my little camping ground, drank wine (do we see a pattern?), had a mini photoshoot with some trees, to be honest I cried a little, and eventually passed out.
On my last day with the van, I desperately wanted to see a glacier. I talked to the reception of the camping grounds and learned a fun fact: it will COST YOU A LOT to see a glacier. What’s a lot? 270 NZD for a fifteen minute helicopter ride! And that is the lowest option. And a helicopter ride is your only way to truly see Tasman Glacier, the one nearest to Mount Cook.
Now, there are plenty of glaciers on the South Island, but due to my time constraints, I was unable to see them. All the more reason to come back.
Instead, I decided to head to Lake Tekapo, the infamous lake of the South Island.
On my way there, I decided I needed just one good photo of me driving this animal. After all, it was my last day! I pulled off to what seemed to be a quiet secluded street, grabbed my selfie stick and started photo-shooting away. Well, low and behold, a French man drove by and he was none too pleased. “You’re in dee middle of zee road, all for instagram?!” He scolded.
I couldn’t help but laugh. I mean, shit, no one died.
I drove on and found myself at Lake Tekapo. People were swimming, there were cabins everywhere, and I found it to be incredibly peaceful, though I must admit, the water at Lake Pukaki was much bluer. I found a small place to get some ice cream and chatted with some locals before heading back.
And now here I am, out of my van, writing my experiences of something I never thought I could accomplish: road tripping the South Island of New Zealand. On a budget.
The most expensive parts will be gas and the car rental itself. But if you can stick to eating out of the car (I would imagine most cars have a mini-kitchen, and if they don’t, camping grounds do!), it is definitely possible. Though I am obviously all about traveling solo, this is an exception where traveling with someone else would be helpful; splitting the car rental could do wonders. But the twist is you won’t get it all to yourself!
Overall, I have zero regrets renting, driving, and living out of a car in New Zealand. Truthfully I wish I had more time, but maybe someday after I hit the jackpot, I will come back to do all of the things I missed! In the meantime, please be aware that it is possible on a budget, just do lots of planning to prepare.