West coast

New Zealand: Touring the South Island's West Coast in a campervan

Tony Reid finds campervan-touring a family-friendly experience.


March 14, 2017

Lake Pukaki and Mt Cook.jpg

Day 1 - Christchurch to Lake Tekapo

With the best intentions of leaving early, we roll out of Christchurch at around midday.

Three adults and two children (both boys — one two years old and the other four months). Earlier in the morning I was given a whistle-stop tour of our six-berth Jucy motorhome, our home for the next week. Just like the Delorean from Back to the Future, there's a lot buttons and endless detail to remember, although the similarities stop there — this baby will not be hitting 88 miles per hour, though she will cruise at a comfortable 90-100kmh.

First stop of the trip is the obligatory Cookie Time factory in ... um ... Christchurch! Still learning how to slow down and pull over without causing an accident, I end up overshooting the store by 100m, leaving my wife Selena to run back and stock up on Cookie Time goodness.

Back on the road, we stumble across a wee gem in the Fat Albert smokehouse just out of Fairlie.

The guy serves up some tourism advice of where to go, and where not to, and some fine smoked salmon and chorizo. If readers are looking to quit their city job and move to the country, Fat Albert is on the market. Final stop, the Lake Tekapo Motels and Holiday Park. We've survived the first day though OCD tendencies are on high alert from the rattle of 101 things in the back of the motorhome — knives, forks, plates, salt, pepper...

The Reids.jpg

The Reids survived their campervan expedition.

Day 2 - Tekapo to Lake Hawea

Today's trip takes us to Lake Pukaki where we get a stunning view of Mt Cook across the bright blue waters. From there we pass by Twizel and Omarama — where you can turn left off the main road for Kurow, and Richie McCaw country. With one child asleep we keep moving (sorry Richie), driving through the stunning Lindis Pass and all its expansive, dry, golden landscapes. Alas, the serenity is pierced by our shrieking 4-month old who demands milk, now! So we stop in Tarras — home to one general store with no ice-cream cones, they're waiting for the next shipment to arrive. We make use of the local tourist attraction — the playground at the local school. Thirty minutes later — bypassing Wanaka and Queenstown, we arrive at the Lake Hawea Holiday Park, and set up camp for the night. This is by far the best paid camping ground of the trip. The owners are friendly, it's relatively quiet, and it feels like a throwback to the classic Kiwi holiday park — no frills but everything you could want at the same time. For dinner we ditch the Delorean, I mean motorhome, and walk the lakefront path to the historic Lake Hawea pub.

Day 3 - Hawea to Haast - rain, rain, rain

From the moment we see the sign for the Haast Pass, the sky comes down, darkens, and the heavens open. None of this drizzle business, this is real West Coast rain — more than 300mm in 24 hours. Despite the deluge we stop to walk the Blue Pools track, recommended by a family we camped beside in Tekapo. It doesn't disappoint, and our 2-year-old makes a good attempt at walking the forest track, and jumping on the swing bridge. After a quick dry off in the campervan (or the "gramperman" as the 2-year-old calls it), we head into Haast, check the forecast (more rain) and decide to call it a day and spend the night. At the Hard Antler bar and restaurant, whitebait sandwiches, cold drinks, and a roaring fire more than compensate for the foul weather outside. It's one of the bonuses of being self-contained that you can make up your route as you go, without having to forgo booking fees if you cancel last minute.

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Day 4 - Haast to Franz Josef

We're feeling pretty relieved that we stopped in Haast, because Jackson's Point is flooded, as is Lake Paringa — both on our list of places to stay. Even the Haast DOC visitor centre is closed because staff can't get to work. First stop today is Monro Beach for a 90-minute return walk to see penguins. The walk takes us through an easy forest track, and then all of a sudden we're on the coast, looking for penguins and being attacked by sandflies.

The penguins are sleeping, we tell our 2-year-old, and the sandflies are biting, so we hustle back to the campervan and head to glacier country. First up is a walk at Lake Matheson for the famous mirror lakes and reflections of Mounts Tasman and Cook, then on to Franz Josef for the night.

Day 5 - Franz Josef to Lake Mahinapua

You know you're in a tourist mecca when you can hear the constant drone of helicopters above, running the glacier circuit for those who choose to take the aerial route. We take the road most travelled, head into Franz Josef and walk up to the first glacier lookout, which is all we can do due to the rest of the track being closed by slips and flooding. The two-year old watches on as diggers work hard to clear the slips from yesterday's downpour. After a walk too far at Peters Pools (more mirror lakes) we carry a tantrumming toddler back to the campervan and hit the road for pretty Lake Mahinapua, and its well-equipped DOC freedom camping site. Fearless weka wander under our deckchairs and at nightfall we go in search of glowworms in the bush.

Day 6 - Lake Mahinapua to Westport

Dawn breaks to the sight of blood on the ceiling of the campervan, from the hundreds, and I mean hundreds of mozzies we did battle against last night. With no mozzie coils in our arsenal, we had to resort to hand-to-hand combat, and for every one that didn't make it, another 10 would enter the combat zone. Our strategy to win came at about 2am, when we rubbed repellent all over the roof, which prompted a swift retreat.

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On the road in the South Island.

The morning starts with a trip to the Treetops walkway outside Hokitika, where for a fee, you can stroll through the West Coast rainforest's tree canopy line. If nothing else, it's a ginormous playground for the toddler, who bounces around on the steel platform, 20 metres from the ground. Punakaiki beckons although with a sleeping child in the back we push on, and join the stunning Tasman coastal drive. Waves smash on to the shore, and we drive in silence looking out in amazement at the West Coast's dramatic, unflinching environment.

We hit Westport for a friend's wedding and take in a few tourist attractions including the Solid Energy swimming pool, a great rainy day activity for kids. A spa pool would be nice but I'm told they ran out of money. The big pools do just fine.

Day 7 - Westport to Christchurch

A long day on the road, but notable for the seal colony in Cape Foulwind, and the drive through scenic Lewis Pass, stopping in Reefton and Amberley. It's stonking hot as we re-enter Canterbury, 35C. We eventually pull into Christchurch and unpack listening to the cricket as New Zealand overcome Australia in another nail-biting ODI win.

I ask Selena if she'd do it again, and get the thumbs up. If you're patient and don't try to pack too much in, motorhome travel is a great way to see the country.