By Jackie Leavitt
After living in Gisborne for more than two months, Arthur and I decided to hit the winding New Zealand roads! Traveling and camping by car is very popular in New Zealand, and is inspiringly called “freedom camping.” Our goal: Freedom camp our way through the North and South Islands, ending in the southern city, Dunedin.
Day 1: Tauranga, Auckland & Piha Beach
Eager to get to Auckland to pick up a pair of inflatable stand up paddle boards, we left Gisborne a couple hours before dusk on Sunday, February 5, and camped by Tauranga’s beachside. We woke and pulled back the curtains to sunshine and crashing waves. My fresh cup of coffee jumpstarted the morning and the road trip.
We hustled to Auckland, where we celebrated Waitangi Day by basking in the summer heat at a music festival with The Royal Family, an incredible dance crew featured in this popular music video, and other well-known NZ musicians and bands, including Katchafire, Kings, and Moana & The Tribe. As the afternoon winded down, we drove west and descended the hills toward Piha Beach as the golden sunset lit up the lush native greenery and rugged coastline.
Day 2: Coromandel Peninsula
After securing our inflatable SUP boards, we made our way southeast to the Coromandel Peninsula to test them out at Cathedral Cove, a naturally formed rock arch by the sea.
We camped nearby, and in the morning we set out under cloudy skies to visit Arthur’s friend in Whangamata. Arthur spent the day surfing, while I treated myself to a coffee and a scone in town. As time shifted into the afternoon, we decided we needed to leave for our freedom camping spot on our way to Rotorua.
Day 4: Rotorua
Rotorua is known as New Zealand’s thermal wonderland, and for an hour we wandered Kuirau Park, the town’s public walkways were framed with steam and startling orange and white mud.
We spent the afternoon at Okere Falls Scenic Reserve, where you can find the world’s tallest commercially rafted waterfall. At the end of the walking path, we found Trout Pools, tempting us to test out the rope swing, although signs advised not to go swimming.
Inspired by the too-hot-to-swim-in thermal pools in Rotorua, we went to the Waikite Valley Thermal Pools for a long soak with a book and a glass of red wine.
We hoped to camp there for the night, but unfortunately they were fully booked by the time we arrived. After a soak, we returned to Okere Falls Scenic Reserve, which was a great second choice for freedom camping.
Day 5: Lake Taupo
In the morning drove to Lake Taupo, pumped up our SUPs and paddled over to Mine Bay to view the 14-meter-tall Maori rock carvings.
Matahi Brightwell and four other artists finished the carvings in 1980, including various reptile sculptures and the face of Ngatoroirangi, who was a historic Maori navigator.
Day 6: Tongariro Crossing
The Tongariro Crossing is on most people’s bucket lists for exploring New Zealand – with good reason. It’s a day-long trek past Mount Mgauruhoe – Mount Doom in the Lord of the Rings movies – and leads past startling turquoise and green thermal pools.
It was the perfect summer day for the hike – and we quickly discovered hundreds of other people had come to that conclusion. I have never hiked with so many people before. There were literally hundreds of people constantly streaming ahead and behind us on the 19.4-kilometer (12-mile) trail.
Both Arthur and I enjoy more secluded exploration, rather than tromping in the footprints of people directly in front. But the scenery was truly stunning, and the hike eventually evolved into the feeling of a group pilgrimage, where we all marveled at the natural beauty of this World Heritage site. We finished around 3 p.m. and decided to soak in some affordable thermal pools on the south side of Lake Taupo, which turned out to be essentially a heated concrete swimming pool – but it helped relax our muscles.
Day 7: Recovering & Driving West
We rested our legs after the long day hike and started our drive to the West Coast to Mount Taranaki, which we hoped to hike if the weather stayed clear.
Unfortunately, the weather became so overcast and rainy in the North Island that we couldn’t even see the volcano when we drove through New Plymouth and the surrounding areas. We tried to keep our belongings dry as we freedom camped and cooked while rain poured down on Eden.
After exploring the town of New Plymouth, we decided to drive south immediately, in hopes of better weather.
Day 11 & 12: Wellington
Wellington is the capital of New Zealand and sits at the bottom of the South Island. Its rolling hills on the bay reminded me a lot of San Francisco. We arrived during New Zealand’s three-week Fringe Festival, which showcases off-the-beaten-path art performances. For Valentine’s Day, Arthur and I went to an aerial dance theater performance called Love, Loss and Lattes.
Speaking of lattes – Wellington also houses several high-quality coffee shops, and I was quick to take advantage of Flight Coffee’s selection of single origin filter coffee.
Wellington is a city Arthur and I had in mind for living at some point while we are in New Zealand, and we quickly fell in love with its beauty, artistic mind-frame and quality food and beverage scene.
We made sure to stop by Garage Project‘s bar for some hoppy ales (for Arthur) and dark porters (for me). The bartender offered a special option for my beverage: sprinkle some sugar on the top, then use a very hot iron rod to caramelize it into the beer. While Arthur made fun of me for being over-the-top hipster, I was keen to taste this sweet style.
Garage Project also had a label coloring competition for one of its upcoming new beers, Nectarivore, so we settled in for a couple hours, sipping beers and coloring inside (and outside) the lines.
It felt amazing to stay in one place for a couple days – also sleeping in a hostel instead of freedom camping. Wellington was a city easy to love.
Day 13: Ferry to Picton
Eager to get to the South Island, we packed the car up again and took the Interislander Ferry that crossed the Cook Straight between Wellington and Picton. My phone died along the journey, so I don’t have any images of the stunning Marlborough Sounds on our way into the South Island.
Day 14 & 15: Kenepuru Sounds
We drove in the dark to a camping spot along the Queen Charlotte Track, and awoke to the warm sun and blue skies in Kenepuru Sound. We were pleased to discover that the native weka birds are incredibly friendly and curious – to a point of hopping into our car if we left the doors open.
We were happy to see the sun after so many overcast and rainy days, so we lost no time in pumping up our SUPs to explore the sound. Arthur saw a couple rays, and we later learned it is also occasionally visited by sharks.
The sounds were indeed stunning, especially at sunset, when the clouds turned to cotton-candy, then faded into a golden glow as the sun sank further behind the horizon.
Day 16: Nelson
The clouds started rolling in again as we drove to Nelson, and rain sprinkled down as we stopped in the Pelorus Bridge Scenic Reserve to stretch our legs underneath Marlborough’s last-remaining river-flat forests – all other similar forest areas were cut down in the past couple hundred years.
We arrived in Nelson with dampened sprits from the rain. Freedom camping is fantastic when it’s dry – but when it’s wet, it’s difficult to protect your belongings from getting soaked and developing mold. We bought a tarp to create a seating area behind Eden when it rained, which also made it easier to cook.
Day 17: Driving to Kaikoura
Not wanting to linger in Nelson’s rain, we bought food at the town’s farmers’ market and then hit the road again, missing a trip to Golden Bay and Abel Tasman, which we’ve heard from so many people is one of the most stunning places in New Zealand. But we found beauty along our drive to Kaikoura, including waterfalls and turquoise rivers snaking through golden fields.
We saw lingering evidence around Kaikoura of the 7.8-magnitude earthquake that occurred in November 2016, including cracked pavement, collapsed bridges and land slides that still cover parts of the route. There are three roads that go into Kaikoura, but the north road is closed still from earthquake damage. That’s why we drove a big “C” from Nelson, rather than going down the eastern road.
Day 18 & 19: Kaikoura
We were instantly smitten with Kaikoura, despite the devastation that is everywhere around town. A quarter of the shops and buildings in the small downtown were destroyed beyond use, including the movie theater, a couple bars and other shops. Because the north road is closed, the town sees far fewer tourists than usual – which made freedom camping luxuriously quiet and secluded. We stayed for a few days near a surf break called Meatworks, which is also close to other surf spots, like Mangamaunu Bay.
While we freedom camped, we made friends with other surfers and freedom campers, and enjoyed slowing down after driving so much. I also let Arthur trim my hair for the first time, as it was beginning to get too long. He managed to cut a straight line.
When we weren’t surfing or resting at our freedom camping spot, we explored the rocky area around town. The earthquake lifted the seabed 5.5 meters (18 feet), changing the geography permanently. We walked along the Kaikoura Peninsula, where it was difficult to distinguish between the old and new rock – but we saw a yellow-eyed penguin, which distracted us from everything else. Apparently he was a little lost – this type of penguin is usually found further south.
We eventually decided to continue our journey and freedom camp south of Christchurch for the night.
Day 20: Christchurch
When we drove into Christchurch in the morning, we were stunned to find that the city’s downtown still partially destroyed and under reconstruction from the 2011 6.3-magnitude earthquake, which killed 185 people. The Christ Church Cathedral is still closed and in ruins – the city is trying to decide if it can be restored or if it needs to be torn down. Meanwhile, the city decided to build a temporary replacement, the Cardboard Cathedral, which might become permanent because of its huge popularity.
Arthur and I went on a free city tour, which showed us how the buildings were renovated to accommodate for future earthquakes, such as installing giant shock absorbers underneath the modern art gallery.
After the earthquake, artists were quick to decorate the newly empty spaces with art pieces, like murals. Innovation also crept in, including the creation of Re:START, a shipping container shopping area, and even a coin-operated outdoor disco party, where you can plug in your own music and make your moves on the dance floor under the sky.
To us, though, the city definitely felt empty and in-construction mode – we bet in 10 years, this will be an incredible place to live. We left the area in the afternoon, eager for our next destination, back to the wilderness and mountains.
We made it just past Castle Hill as the sky began to darken. We decided to explore Castle Hill the next day, when we had more daylight.
We camped the night by Lake Pearson – which is where we felt our first New Zealand earthquakes: 4.9-magnitude. Three of them. They were small, but enough to wake us up in the middle of the night.
Day 21: Castle Hill & Arthur’s Pass
We woke up bright and early, and made friends with an American hitchhiker, Andrew, who was from in the same small Californian town that Arthur lived in for 10 years: Santa Cruz. We gave him a ride to Castle Hill, and then we explored the giant limestone rocks while he strummed his guitar.
Andrew was going to Christchurch that day, so we parted ways. Arthur and I drove west and stopped at the Cave Stream Scenic Reserve to make lunch and to hike through a pitch-black, underground river cave for an hour. We were a little spooked by the earthquakes we felt the night before, but it was exhilarating and a little creepy.
We hustled through Arthur’s Pass – deciding not to do a three-day backpacking hike because of bad weather – and high-tailed it to the west coast, land of rain and pounamu, or New Zealand green stone.
Day 22 & 23: Punakaiki
More than a year ago, my sister, Vickie, came to New Zealand on a sailing trip. She spent two weeks in Punakaiki before rejoining the tall ship in Christchurch. I didn’t understand why she stayed so long in one area until we came to this town, which is so small it doesn’t even have a store to buy beer. We caught it on a great day, too, because all summer it had been raining nonstop – but today, there were blue skies, puffy white clouds, and a sparkling ocean.
We pumped up our SUPs and paddled the Pororari River, which is framed on both sides with imposing white gorge cliffs, covered in lush fern trees and air plants. We learned that only a couple weeks before, a New Zealand woman hurt her leg and was lost for six weeks in the jungle near Punakaiki. It was easy to see how, with the area’s ruggedness and abundant vegetation.
We stayed the night with Vickie’s friend, who, as he said, just bought a little slice of heaven in Punakaiki, not far from his family-run hostel. In the morning, we enjoyed more sunshine while walking around the Pancake Rocks: 30 million-year-old limestone layers.
Day 24: Hokitika
One town I was very excited to visit was Hokitika: not only because it’s near the heart of New Zealand’s green stone zone, but because it is also the location of the 832-page fictional book, The Luminaries. No, I had not finished yet, but it was neat to see some spots that I had read about in the book.
We walked up to the Hokitika Gorge, hanging over the glacial Hokitika River. As the sandflies emerged, we decided it was an excellent time to leave. On the drive back to town, I started sneezing, which turned into a cold almost immediately. We decided to spend the night in Hokitika again to rest and hopefully recover.
Day 25: Franz Josef Glacier
Even though I was still battling some sniffles, Arthur and I pressed south toward the famous Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers. We decided to take the easy, well-trodden path to the base of Franz Josef Glacier. Along the way, we were treated with waterfalls, rainbows and, well, not as big of a glacier as we expected. It’s because the glaciers are in rapid retreat mode, so much so that they are only accessible by air now.
Our little hike didn’t take too long, so we continued south to Haast Pass. We stopped at Thunder Creak Falls briefly before being overrun with sand flies, which we were quickly realizing are the spawn of pure evil.
We found an excellent freedom camping spot overlooking the Makarora River, and we cracked open a bottle of red while with cheese and crackers – while bundled up head-to-toe in clothes to prevent the sand flies from eating us alive.
Day 26: Blue Pools & Lake Hawea
We woke up bright an early to visit the aptly named Blue Pools of Haast Pass. Arthur had planned to jump from the swing bridge into the deep pools below – but the day hadn’t warmed up too much by 9 a.m. Instead, we walked down to the river, egging each other on until we both plunged in for a refreshing and very quick swim.
Our next stop was the little ski town, Wanaka, which had a youthful, livelier vibe than most other villages we had visited in the South Island. After getting some fish and chips, we decided to camp at a friend’s recommendation: Lake Hawea.
And, boy, it was a great choice. The summer sun warmed the lake water, and we took a divine SUP ride into the lake, where we jumped into the crisp water several times. We ended the the afternoon sitting in our beach chairs, sipping wine by the water.
Day 27: Queenstown
We decided to take a jaunt to Queenstown, which according to our navigation, was only an hour from Wanaka. But you have to go over a pretty steep mountain pass, which gave us incredible views from the top as we coasted into Queenstown.
Queenstown was definitely the town for 20- to 30-somethings. If Arthur and I didn’t need to live by an ocean, we would have come to Queenstown. It sits right by skiing mountains and Lake Wakatipu, and it features modern bars and pubs, restaurants, shopping and tourist attractions of all kinds. It’s a place where it’s easy to spend money – so we only stayed for a few hours before returning to Wanaka. We had a big hike in the morning, and we didn’t want to miss it.
Day 28: Rob Roy Glacier Track
The adventure of the Rob Roy Glacier Track started well before we made it to the trailhead. The dirt road featured at least eight river fords and traffic consisting of one large herd of meandering cattle. We started the half-day hike early, which was fortunate because we were at the front of a long line of tourists. The route was stunning, involving a couple hours of uphill hiking through Mount Aspiring National Park until we reached a clearing where we saw the Rob Roy Glacier, plus at least five waterfalls. It was our favorite hike in New Zealand, so far.
Day 29: Mount Cook / Aoraki
Having made it to the east side of New Zealand’s Southern Alps, we were ready to see Mount Cook, or Aoraki. We freedom camped nearby, and then woke early to drive past the insanely teal-colored Lake Pukaki, up to the glacial mountains.
The three-hour Hooker Valley Track took us along a very nicely maintained trail/boardwalk up to Hooker Lake, which caught the melted water of Tasman Glacier. Several big icebergs floated in the water, reminding us the water temperature was frigid.
Day 30: East Coast & Dunedin
We had been on the road for a month, and both of us – while loving the journey – we very excited to get to Dunedin, the end of the road trip and the start of our new lives in the South Island. We sped to the east coast, stopping in Oamaru, where we saw this delightful penguin road sign.
We also stopped to see the Moeraki Boulders – and then we laughed at ourselves for walking 10 minutes down a beach to see, essentially, round rocks. I sat on one and pretended to lay an egg, then we got back in the car.
Arriving in Dunedin was everything that we could have asked for: we treated ourselves to a hostel in town, got cleaned up, and walked to a Japanese restaurant for dinner. It was lovely. After a month on the road, we had reached the end. Dunedin had surf for Arthur, dancing and arts for me, good food and beers, and a young, university crowd. Not a bad spot to settle for a few months, we decided. We were done.
Epilogue: Of course, it wasn’t really the end of our trip that month. We ended up leaving and going to Kaikoura… but more on that later.