There were four of us: AJ, Adam, Josh, and me. Together we’d spend a month on the road, covering much of New Zealand’s South Island before making our way through the north. We’d sleep in the dirt, through the wind, in the rain, and sometimes in our van if things were really wet. Other nights we’d sleep out on the beach and wake up completely soaked from morning dew. Nothing a bit of sunshine and lazy mornings wouldn’t be able to fix.
It came from an idea that formed after spending a few days in Joshua Tree with a new friend. It was the sort of idea that you can’t stop thinking about—one that you come back to until you figure out a way to make it actually happen. After a quick Thanksgiving Day phone call and gut decision, AJ and I were on our way to spending 30 days in New Zealand.
“We finally slowed down, cooked good dinner, had a fire on the beach, and slept under the stars. It’s those moments that stand out, when you get to slow down and take it all in.”
This trip was one that we’ll be sharing stories from for a while … about that one time we had a long-jump contest at the hot springs while getting eaten alive from mosquitoes and getting soaked in the rain, or when we flew in a plane around Mount Cook and landed on the Tasman Glacier.
We chose to rent a van instead of buying one. If you’re traveling around New Zealand for more than a month, I’d recommend buying a cheap car and then selling it before leaving—seems to be the cool thing to do. Our van was our home and we treated him as such. A 12-person passenger van, right-side drive, four rows of seating—none of which folded into a bed. His name was Marty and he was perfect. Despite having 4-wheel drive, he was still a bit slow uphill (like, worrisome slow) but he only died once and he was a steadfast travel companion.
Our van was loaded up the day after arriving in Christchurch, and we headed out. First stop, Castle Hill and beyond. Just north of Castle Hill, there’s an open field that we slept in. No tent, just bags and pads under the stars. Cowboy camping. When we woke up at sunrise the next morning, our bags were frozen. I’m talking kicking ice off our feet and letting them dry out over the next hour. If you’re around the area, search for the cave stream. There’s an entrance down a small trail and it takes you about a mile or so underground, upriver. Grab your headlamps and get after it.
From there we headed south, our main route leading down to Wanaka, back up to Mount Cook, then Queenstown, Milford Sound, and up the west coast toward Wellington.
When you make it to Wanaka, you have to sleep up on top of Roys Peak. No question. It was one of my favorite spots we slept. The trail is pretty straightforward (we walked down barefoot for most of it), but there’s not much space once you reach the top. The sunsets and sunrises and stars were worth the midday heat we hiked through. People will question why you’re carrying such big packs up the trail, but you’ll be smiling once you reach the top.
Mount Cook is the tallest peak in New Zealand and there’s a national park designated around the area. When you make it in the park, reserve a spot on Mueller Hut and hike up there—epic views, a cozy hut, and good stars. We were advised not to go up because the weather forecast was going to turn south, but we decided to chance it. Winds were gale force and rain fell sideways all through the night and the next morning. Afterward, we found a spot to sleep on the shores of Lake Pukaki, probably my most favorite spot. We finally slowed down, cooked good dinner, had a fire on the beach, and slept under the stars. It’s those moments that stand out, when you get to slow down and take it all in. It’s where you realize what you’re actually doing and the power of leaving home to travel in another country, meet new people, create new stories, and turn on parts of your brain that you’re not used to using on a daily basis.
“When we woke up at sunrise the next morning, our bags were frozen. I’m talking kicking ice off our feet and letting them dry out over the next hour.”
Beyond this small part of the country, other favorite adventures included Cascade Saddle near Milford Sound, kayaking out in the Sound, exploring hot springs along the west coast, running around Wharariki Beach in the rain, sipping espresso in the small coffee shop just before that beach, ferrying across to Wellington, sunrise at Mount Victoria, hiking part of the Tongariro circuit, relaxing in the sun on the Coromandel Peninsula, and getting caught in a rainstorm out of our tents in the middle of the night.
One thing you’ll learn while traveling through New Zealand: there are a lot of people camping, hitchhiking, backpacking, and living in their cars. Rules have gotten stricter over the years, but there’s an amazing app called CamperMate that will save you more times than you think. It’s a map preloaded with every sort of campground, from paid to free to spots where you may be taking a risk. I think it’s a must-have if you’re going to be driving around and camping.
It’s a bit hard to sum up a month of traveling with new friends, but that seems to happen with good trips. You build relationships and stories that nobody else understands and that’s a beautiful thing. We had ups and downs along the way, some nights rougher than others (rain doesn’t help), but it was all worth it. If you’re thinking of heading out there for a few weeks, go for it. Come up with some crazy idea and put all your effort into making it happen.