New Zealand is a place of wonders. On two rather small islands you will find warm beaches, snow covered mountains, volcanoes, rain forests, and of course, Hobbit Holes.
In November 2017, I embarked on an eighteen day solo trip to New Zealand (20 days including travel time). It would be a camping road trip, touring both islands in a camper van.
Overall, the trip was amazing, but it turned out to be one of the toughest trips I have ever undertaken.
First of all, eighteen days is not enough time to explore both the North and South Islands. I knew this while I was planning the trip, but I only had a limited amount of vacation time, and I thought I could still see and do everything I was really interested in. For the most part, I did, but there were still many things I wasn’t able to fit into my itinerary. I think you really need a month to see the country, and even then, you may feel rushed. There is a lot to do there.
One of the reasons why this trip was so tough on me was because I was camping solo. There were two problems with this. The first problem was something that should have been obvious to me—I’m too damn old to be camping for eighteen days! I’m sure there are a lot of 47 year-olds who could easily pull this off, but it turns out I’m not one of them. Within only a few days, my back was hurting and every muscle ached. In addition to camping, I was also driving for hours most days, and many places I visited involved hiking and steep climbing.
The second reason the trip was challenging was because I was camping solo. Unlike other solo trips I’ve taken, camping provided a seclusion that made it difficult to meet people. I did make a couple of friends on this trip, but camping solo is a lonely business.
Don’t get me wrong, this was a fantastic trip in a beautiful country. I was able to mark a few things off my bucket list, and although I would do a few things differently, I had a blast!
- New Chum Beach & Katikati
- Mount Maunganui/Papamoa Beach
- Matamata/Hobbiton Movie Set
- Tongariro National Park
- Cape Palliser
- Kaitoke Regional Park
- Lake Tekapo
Campsites and Accommodations
After the first few days, I started booking AirBnB homes about a third of the time. Every few days, I needed a soft bed and a proper night’s sleep. Also, I learned that when I visited cities like Queenstown, Dunedin, Wellington, and Christchurch, it was difficult to explore the city while I was set up in a campsite on the outskirts of town. I would rather be located closer to the city center where I could walk and explore.
I booked my campsites months in advance. I was traveling during a shoulder season (I was there from mid-November to early December), so I didn’t run into availability issues, but even in off-season, the campsite were filling up quick. If you plan to camp, book ahead of time. Since I had a camper with a refrigerator and electrical outlets, I booked powered sites. Campsites will run you about $15-35 USD.
While you can freedom camp in New Zealand, I found the amenities of the campsites to be worth the fees. Of course, everyone is different and many people would rather camp remotely, but this is what worked best for me. I liked that I always knew where I would be parked that night, and that I would have power, laundry, and a hot shower. And if I decided to trade the campsite for an AirBnB, or change my itinerary at the last minute, I wasn’t out a whole lot of money.
I learned that if you search for an AirBnB on the same day that you need the rental, you can find some very deep discounts from renters who would rather not have their property sit empty. In one case I found a five bedroom mini-mansion in Wellington, with a view of the beach on one side and a golf course on the other. It was only $100 USD for the night. This method of last minute booking works great if you have a camper van that you can fall back on, but obviously you wouldn’t want to plan a trip of this scale, and book your accommodations as you went along.
For information about parks, camping, hunting, and things to do, visit the New Zealand Department of Conservation website (DOC). This site will let you know where you can and cannot camp. It also has a variety of maps. It’s a very useful site.
Driving and Camper Rental
After researching a few different rental companies, I ended up renting a Condo Camper from Jucy Rentals. There were other more luxurious camper vans out there, but the Jucy camper was significantly cheaper.
The Condo has a table which folds over to make room for the bottom bed, and you can pull out a top bed (bedding is provided). There is also a stove and refrigerator, with dishes and utensils provided. I never used the stove (I didn’t cook), but the refrigerator turned out to be extremely useful. Although there was no television service, it did come with a DVD player, so I stocked up on cheap DVDs that I purchased at The Warehouse, a Wal-Mart style discount chain. This place is great for buying everything you’ll need for your trip, whether you are camping or not—and it’s really cheap.
A space heater is also provided with the camper, but in order to plug the heater into the camper outlets, you’ll need to be plugged into power at a campsite.
I was very nervous about driving. I had driven in Iceland and Slovenia, but now I would be driving on the left side of the road, and there were a few small differences in the vehicle that I hadn’t expected. Of course, I knew the driver sits on the right side of the vehicle, but I hadn’t realized that everything would be opposite from what I was used to. The turn signals are on the right side of the steering wheel, and the windshield wipers are on the left side, next to the shifter (thankfully I rented an automatic). It makes sense, but I just hadn’t expected it. For the first week, I turned my wipers on every time I wanted to signal a turn.
To prepare myself for driving in New Zealand, I mentally practiced driving on the left for a few weeks prior to departing for my trip. As I approached intersections, I imagined what I would do if I were in driving on the opposite side of the road. Where would my car be in the intersection, and what lane would I turn into? It sounds fairly trivial, but this actually worked for me. By the time I got behind the wheel in New Zealand, I had no problems.
The roads in New Zealand are very well maintained, and the street signs are clear and abundant. You will find a lot of areas with road construction, so account for this when you plan your drive times. Roads are generally one lane in each direction, but there are places built for passing.
If you rent a van, be sure to take note of the posted speed limits for curves in the road. If you don’t, you run the risk of tipping over your van. They are tighter curves than you think. Speaking of speed limits, there are a lot of speed traps, and I’ve heard the fines are steep. Many of the traffic police ride in private cars, so you may not see them coming.
When I was there, the cost of fuel (after conversion to USD), came out to about $5.50 per gallon.
Tip: To ease my camper’s struggle to get up hills, and to reduce my fuel usage, I drained most of the drinking water from the camper (just open the tap and let it run, then drain your grey water tank). I didn’t need all of that water weighing me down, and I was drinking bottled water anyway.
As for other transportation, Uber is available in seven New Zealand cities (Auckland, Christchurch, Dunedin, Queenstown, Tauranga, Wellington, and Hamilton). Lyft does not offer service in New Zealand. Bus service is also available in most of the larger cities, and taxis are always an option.
Click HERE for a PDF of my full itinerary.
I arrived in Auckland at 2:00am. My flight from Los Angeles to Brisbane was late, so I missed my connecting flight and was forced to stay in the Brisbane airport for nearly a full day. It’s a nice airport, and I got a lot of writing done, but obviously a delay of that length is not ideal.
When I finally arrived, I checked into my AirBnB in downtown Auckland and slept for a few hours. I had been traveling for almost two days, and lost an additional day to the International Date Line, so I needed to keep my jet lag in check. I didn’t want to sleep too
late. Luckily, I had not planned many activities in Auckland. I knew I would be tired from my flight and I would need to get lots of rest for the long drives ahead.
I walked through Albert Park, and then made my way to the Sky Tower (the tallest structure in the Southern Hemisphere). There are a couple of different observation decks, and the view of Auckland is incredible from that height.
There are many great things just outside Auckland that I wish I could have visited, including some amazing beaches and the massive art sculptures at Gibbs Farm, but I had to prioritize my time.
After checking out of my AirBnB the next day, I picked up my camper and started my journey out of Auckland.
New Chum Beach & Katikati
The drive from Auckland to New Chum Beach was incredibly beautiful and took me through mountains. Although the scenery was great, the roads were very steep with tight curves. This made the drive almost twice as long as I had predicted. Google Maps is generally good at estimating travel times, but when I was traveling through areas with winding roads, I found Google to be flawed. The speed limits sometimes remain high on winding roads, so travel times might be based on unrealistic speeds.
The steep and winding roads also meant that I used almost a full tank of gas to make the trip to New Chums, and as I mentioned, gas is very expensive in New Zealand.
When you arrive at New Chum, you have to hike over rocks, and through a bit of forest to get to the beach. Only a few other people were there when I arrived. It was a beautiful beach, but over the next two weeks, I would find much more impressive beaches. In retrospect, I probably would have skipped New Chum, but that’s part of the adventure—you don’t know what you’re in for until you get there.
I stayed at the Katikati Naturist Park that night (about a two hour drive). I’m a bit of a naturist, and although I’ve been to nude baths and nude beaches, I had never been to a naturist resort. Since it was off-season, there weren’t many campers at the park. Many of the people who were there, own their own space and either live at the park year-round, or use their park property as a second home.
The place was very nice, with a swimming pool, hot tubs, laundry, and kitchens. The owners and the guests were all very friendly. I highly recommend this place for those who enjoy naturism.
Mount Maunganui/Papamoa Beach
Mount Maunganui is a short drive from Katikati, so I was able to spend quite a while there. When you get to the town that surrounds the mountain, you will find a strip of restaurants and shops.
The mountain is a short walk from the shopping district. When you arrive at the base, you can either walk around the mountain a short way up from the base, or climb to the top. I chose to walk around the base. It is a fairly long walk, but very beautiful and very relaxing. Once you have gone completely around, you will come out on the ocean side where there is a large beach and a boardwalk.
After I left Maunganui, I made a quick stop at Papamoa Beach, which is another short drive. By the time I arrived, it was almost evening, so I only walked up and down the beach a bit. I could have skipped this beach altogether, but it was nearby, so I decided I would check it out.
That night I stayed at the Opal Hot Springs near Matamata. It was a nice Holiday Park with good showers and laundry facilities. Ironically, I arrived too late to enjoy the hot springs and I didn’t have time to swim the next day either. Still, it was a good place to camp.
Matamata/Hobbiton Movie Set
I am a huge Lord of the Rings fan, as well as a fantasy novelist, so visiting the Hobbiton Movie Set was a must. Even if you aren’t a fan of LOTR, this is a fantastic tour and well worth the price. The place is busy, so buy your tickets well in advance.
I arrived late, and missed my tour bus by five minutes. Luckily, they were able to put me into another time slot (one of the benefits of being a single, I suppose).
The tour delay turned out to be convenient because it gave me time to eat breakfast in their awesome restaurant, The Shire’s Rest Cafe. I recommend the Second Breakfast. It was amazing!
On a side note, this was where I learned how to order bacon in New Zealand. In most New Zealand restaurants, ordering bacon will get you ham, but ordering crispy bacon, will get you, well, bacon. It might sound like a trivial thing to add to this article, but bacon is important to me, so knowing how to order it properly is also important. Every time I travel, there are caveats to ordering. It once took me hours to buy cigarettes in Paris because I should have been asking for cigars. In Lisbon, it took me a while to realize I would be served carbonated water if I didn’t specify still water as opposed to fizzy. And don’t even get me started on chips vs. crisps vs. potato chips vs. French fries vs. potato wedges (I get it now, but it took a while and it differs by country).
After breakfast, I boarded a tour bus and we set off on our way to Hobbiton. While we rode, we were treated to a videotaped message from director Peter Jackson welcoming us to The Shire.
This tour is amazing!
Hobbiton is set on a working sheep farm owned by the Alexander Family, who now partners with Peter Jackson and others, to keep the site open. The movie set was originally demolished after the filming of The Lord of the Rings movies (like all of the LOTR sets), but when the time came to film The Hobbit trilogy, the set was entirely rebuilt—this time with a tourist attraction in mind.
The scenery is incredibly beautiful. There are 44 hobbit holes peppering the hillsides, a man-made pond, the Party Tree, and of course, The Green Dragon Inn. The tour ends at the Green Dragon where you are given a complimentary beverage (including beer, if you like).
The level of detail that Peter Jackson demanded, makes me appreciate the films even more. Many of the trees are man-made (after all, you can’t grow trees on top of hobbit holes), tools and baskets sit on front porches, and on the dock you will find a fishing pole and other items.
Our tour guide told us fascinating stories about the movie’s production as well. For example, above some of the hobbit holes, there are small clothes lines with hobbit clothes hanging on them. A dirt path through the grass leads up to the clothes lines. In order for the path to appear as though it had been worn down naturally over time, Jackson instructed a member of the film crew to hang hobbit clothes on the line each morning, and then walk back up to retrieve them at the end of each day. This way the path would seem authentic.
In another example, they built a small pond, but the pond attracted frogs. The frogs’ croaking made too much noise during filming, so a crew member was instructed to collect and relocate all the frogs each morning before filming began.
These are the stories I love hearing, and there are lots of them!
I didn’t spend as much time in Rotorua as I would have liked. Rotorua is known for its thermal pools and geothermal activity. This is where most of the hot springs are located (although there are others).
I spent some time walking around Rotorua Lake when I got there—it’s beautiful. I also did a lot of napping. I was already pretty beat up from driving so much. I wasn’t getting enough sleep in the camper, and for some reason, sitting on the right side of the vehicle while I drove was making muscles scream that I didn’t know I had.
That night I paid for a cheap motel that turned out to be one of the best motels I have ever stayed in. BK’s Rotorua Motor Lodge is seriously awesome. They had 5G WiFi, which was great for loading up Netflix movies to my iPad and laptop, it was clean and comfortable, and the shower was better than my shower at home. It also had a full kitchenette. I can’t recommend this place enough!
The next day I went to the Blue Baths. This place is really nice. It has a large swimming pool in the center of a beautiful courtyard, surrounded by smaller hot pools of varying temperature. It is a public pool, and not clothing optional (when I asked the woman at the counter, she looked at me like I was crazy). I spent the better part of the day there. My aching body needed it!
Tongariro National Park
On my way out of the Rotorua area, I made a stop at the Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland, a large park with boiling pools of water and mud. There is also a hot thermal lake and several geysers. Unfortunately, I was there at the wrong time of day to see the geysers. It was a great walk through the park, though.
I spent a couple of hours at Wai-O-Tapu, then got back on the road. My next destination was Lake Taupo, where I strolled around the lake a bit before heading to my campsite, the Oasis Motel & Thermal Pools, located in Tokaanu. At this campsite they had a great Japanese Onsen to soak in. The Onsen pools are in private rooms and there is also a larger thermal pool. It was good to have a soak before setting out on a long driving day.
Tongariro National Park is a vast area of the North Island, and my drive would be nearly six hours. I decided I would drive all the way to the Southern tip of the island all in one day. There isn’t a lot to see on this drive, although the scenery isn’t bad. It’s mostly flat, which made for an easy drive.
During my drive to Cape Palliser, I pulled over for a rest and discovered a lookout called Stormy Point. This was an amazing view.
I arrived in Cape Palliser late in the afternoon, and went directly to my campsite, Waimeha Camping Village, before going out to explore. The campsite sits near the beach and has a great view. The owner and the few guests that were there, were very cool. We ended up having a small party later that night. Really fun people!
Cape Palliser would end up being one of the most beautiful place I would visit in New Zealand. There is a lighthouse, beautiful blue waters, and a colony of fur seals who live along the rocky beach. I am told there is also a penguin colony there, but I did not see any penguins.
I drove through the tiny village and down to the lighthouse. The village has no services whatsoever, so if you go there, prepare ahead of time. There are no gas stations, no restaurants, no grocery stores, and no cell service. The nearest gas station is miles away, so fill up before you go.
I arrived at the lighthouse and climbed up the stairs to where it sits. There were a lot of stairs, but it was worth it. The view was breathtaking.
When I walked back down to the small parking lot, I met Chris and Chrissi, a young couple from Germany who were traveling through New Zealand for several months (to read about their travels through New Zealand, visit their blog).
We hit it off immediately, and they invited me to have breakfast at their campsite the next morning—an offer I gladly accepted. After walking through the colony of seals (who were all out sleeping on the rocks), I went back to my campsite and partied a little bit with the camp owner. He was an Australian guy who was sorely disappointed that I don’t drink. We still had a great time!
After breakfast with my new German friends, I made my way to the Putangirua Pinnacles, where they filmed scenes from The Lord of the Rings (the gray mountains where Aragorn goes to recruit the Army of the Dead).
I hadn’t planned to make this stop, but it was on the way out of Palliser, so I drove in. To get to the Pinnacles, you have to hike a pretty good distance. There are several different paths you can take, ranging in length from 45 minutes to 3 hours. I hiked in for about twenty minutes, but then decided to skip the rest of the hike. The area is dusty with rocks and gravel, and I just didn’t want to take the time, so I turned around and got back on the road.
That’s one of the awesome benefits of traveling solo!
Kaitoke Regional Park
My next stop was Kaitoke Regional Park where they filmed the LOTR scenes in Rivendell and the Fords of Isen. Although the Rivendell structures were demolished after filming, it’s easy to imagine that this is a place where elves might live.
Kaitoke is a rain forest with a wide variety of plant life. A river runs through the forest which adds to the beauty (remember Arwen, riding with wounded Frodo, summoned the river to rise up like horses and engulf the Ringwraiths who were chasing them).
The short walk through the forest takes you over a narrow cable bridge that spans the river. You can walk around the entire park in less than an hour, or if you like, the river also acts as a popular swimming area. There were quite a few people swimming on the day I was there.
I had decided to fly from Wellington on the North Island, to Queenstown on the South Island. The reason for this was part logistical, and part financial. It turned out that my flight would cost less than taking my camper across to the South Island via the ferry, and I wanted to end up further south. I would be flying home from Christchurch, which is on the coast midway down the island.
I had one night to spend in Wellington and would fly to Queenstown the next morning. I didn’t plan any activities here, but I did meet up with my new German friends for dinner. We had a great time, and I wish I could have stayed longer, but the South Island was calling.
Queenstown is an awesome city! It sits along the shore of Lake Wakatipu and the scenery is beautiful.
While in Queenstown, I opted to stay in an AirBnB located on the side of the hill overlooking the lake. It was a short walk down to the wharf where there are a variety of great restaurants, shops, and a casino. I spent most of my first day sitting at a café, people watching. It was very relaxing.
The next day I made my way to Shotover Jet. Here you can take a 30 minute ride in a jet boat over the Shotover River, and into Shotover Canyon.
The boats go up to 53mph (85kph) over the water, with close passes by the canyon walls and a few 360 degree turns at high speed. This was an amazing experience and so much fun! I highly recommend taking a ride on a jet boat while in New Zealand. There are several places you can go on both the North and South Islands. You’ll need to purchase your tickets ahead of time, so don’t miss out on this thrill ride! It’s worth it!
Dunedin is a city in the Otego Peninsula. I really enjoyed my time here, and I’m glad I added it to my itinerary. When I arrived, I went straight to my campsite, Dunedin Holiday Park & Motels. It was a nice campsite, but an extremely busy place. I suspect there are not many holiday parks this close to town, so this is a popular one.
I added this stop to my itinerary because I was able to purchase tickets to see Stevie Nicks and The Pretenders perform their last show on Stevie’s 24 Karat Gold Tour. I often search for events, concerts, and festivals when planning my trips, and this was one time where I got very lucky.
The concert was held at Forsyth Barr Stadium, an amazing sheltered outdoor venue. If you are ever in Dunedin, and able to see a show here, I highly recommend it. It was a great show with great energy from the crowd.
I had planned to travel the next day to Oamaru and then on to Lake Wanaka, but I changed my mind at the last minute and decided to stay in Dunedin one more day. I would then spend the night in Oamaru, and skip Lake Wanaka altogether. I had been to several lakes, and while I’m sure Wanaka would be as beautiful as the rest, I decided my time was better spent in Dunedin.
I’m glad I changed my plans.
During my extra day in Dunedin, I found Tunnel Beach. This beach was one of the more beautiful that I had encountered. There is a long path to get down to large rocks that overlook the ocean. From there you can walk down through a short tunnel to reach the beach. In the tunnel there are man-made sandstone stairs.
This beach is really nice and I spent a good part of the day there.
This turned out to be a fascinating little town. The first thing I did after checking into my AirBnB, was to go to Steampunk Headquarters. Not only is there a Steampunk Headquarters, but there is an entire district of the town designed in the style of Steampunk. Even the parks have playgrounds built in Steampunk style.
I toured the Steampunk HQ, a fascinating little museum of sorts, and walked through the galleries and shops in the Steampunk District.
The next day I went to the Bushy Beach Scenic Reserve where I was told there are Yellow-Eyed Penguins. They do not allow you to walk down to the beach itself because it would disturb the penguin colony, but there is a viewing platform overlooking the beach.
When I got there, there were about six other people on the lookout waiting for the penguins to return from the ocean.
There is a certain time of day when the penguins return, but there is also no guarantee that they will be on time. I waited for nearly an hour before I gave up and went back into town for dinner. It’s a beautiful area, but I couldn’t spend all night on a penguin stakeout.
There is also a penguin colony viewing attraction in town, but you’ll need to pay to see the penguins there. At that attraction they have boxes set up for the penguins, and have seating for viewing. The penguins come into the viewing area to their homes while tourists watch. I opted not to do this, but I heard good things about it while I was there.
Also near the town of Oamaru are the Moeraki Boulders. These spherical boulders sit on the beach, and are quite interesting. I’m glad I took the time to go see them.
At the entrance to the beach where the boulders are, there is a restaurant and gift shop. There was no charge to view the boulders.
I went to Lake Tekapo mostly for the scenery, although I probably could have skipped this location since I had been to so many other lakes. I will say, though, that Lake Tekapo is extremely beautiful.
On my way to Tekapo, I came across a road sign for the Clay Cliff Scenic Reserve. Since it was only about ten miles off the road, I decided to check it out. I’m glad I did—it was impressive.
The Clay Cliffs sit on private land, so you will be asked to drop money into an honor box before opening the gate to drive in. Once you drive a short distance up a dirt road, you will come to a small parking area. From there you can walk into the cliffs.
Although the cliffs are spectacular, the most impressive thing here is the lavender. There are lavender flowers everywhere and the smell of them is really nice.
After the cliffs, I continued on to Lake Tekapo where I checked into my campsite, Lake Tekapo Motels & Holiday Park. It was a nice park, but a bit expensive and they had some issues with hot water while I was there, so I wasn’t impressed with the shower situation. The campground sits on the shore of the lake, and the Tekapo Hot Springs are a short five minute walk.
Mount John Observatory is also within short walking distance from the campgrounds. I wanted to visit the observatory, but unfortunately I was there during a full moon. Observatory tours are also quite expensive.
I hadn’t planned on stopping in Ashburton, but I wanted to skydive while I was in New Zealand. I had never skydived before, but it is something that had been on my bucket list for a while, and New Zealand seemed like the ideal place.
My flight home would depart Christchurch, and Ashburton happened to be on my way. It was my last opportunity to dive. I hadn’t booked a reservation for my dive, so I called Skydiving Kiwis. I was told that there was one slot open, so I rushed over.
When I got there I signed a one page liability form, paid for my dive, and was given a brief overview of what would happen. The instructions for the dive took only about five minutes and then we were up in the airplane. I’ve talked to friends who have dived in Colorado, and it has taken hours for them to watch videos and go through training. To this day I’m not sure why that is the case. When you tandem dive, you aren’t really doing anything—the guy strapped to your back does all the work. Nevertheless, I was in and out in only about 45 minutes.
Skydiving was incredible, and I’m planning to dive on every trip I take from here out.
I spent two nights in Christchurch, although I had a 6:00am flight home. My first night was spent in an AirBnB and my second night I spent in a Jucy Snooze. These are small traveler rooms for a low price. They are run by Jucy Rentals, so when I dropped off my camper van, I was shuttled over to the hotel which is a short walk to the main terminal of the airport.
Since I had driven most of the day from Lake Tekapo, with a stop for skydiving, my first day in Christchurch was short. I spent most of the day walking through the city and gambling at the casino. Nice and chill before my return home.
The next morning I left New Zealand.
In the End
This was a great trip! I wish I had been able to spend more time there, but I hope to return one day (maybe during a trip to Australia). The Kiwis I met were incredibly friendly, and the country is beautiful.
** The full itinerary does not necessarily reflect how my trip unfolded. I made adjustments on the road.