Road tripping the South Island: From penguin watching to cruising the Milford Sound

We’ve just returned from two weeks campervanning around the stupidly beautiful South Island of New Zealand. That means you’re in for a treat: a week of travel posts!

On our very first night, we camped by this not-so-little beauty just south of Christchurch: Lake Ellesmere.

nz south island lake ellesmere nzmuse

Then it was on southward through Canterbury, where almost every bridge we crossed brought pure, clear waters like these (I absolutely HAVE to do the Tongariro Crossing now). The Hobbit and Middle-earth lines we’re using to sell our nation are all a bit cheesy, but darn near impossible to refute.CANTERBURY WATER nzmuse

Along the way, we stopped by the Moeraki boulders – freaky, almost perfectly spherical dark rocks that adorn this beach. It seems impossible that the cliffs beyond spawned them, and it seems they in fact formed on the sea floor originally, millions of years ago. Nature, you are the shiz.

MOERAKI BOULDERS NZMUSEMOERAKI BOULDERS south island road trip campervanMOERAKI BOULDERS south island road trip campervanA haggard me by the boulders…

But there’s also no shortage of other rocks to be discovered, all with the most interesting surfaces…

MOERAKI BOULDERS OTHER ROCKS 4MOERAKI south island road trip campervanHollow rocks further out toward the sea (you can see my shoes peeping in from the corner where I’m standing)

The beach is an easy couple of minutes’ walk from the carpark, and beautifully colourful in its own wild way. MOERAKI BEACH south island road trip campervanMOERAKI BEACH south island road trip campervan

Before we hopped back into the camper, I made to head over to the two deer observing us from behind a fence (you can buy food to feed them with, too). But their unnerving gazes freaked me out a little too much, especially given what we’d witnessed earlier that day: a woman parked up by a deer farm, busy snapping a picture of the herd. EVERY SINGLE ANIMAL had turned her way and had its eyes trained firmly on her. It was ripe for a deer version of Black Sheep the movie, I tell ya – critters silently plotting to charge and attack.

OTAGO south island road trip campervan

As Canterbury melted into Otago the region was just spilling over with these thistle blooms.

Driving into Dunedin was an experience. The wide, flat Canterbury roads gave way to steep and narrow twists; we had a lot of chuckles at kids pushing their bikes up hills, and marvelled at how toned you’d be if you walked anywhere regularly in that city. And while the South Island generally is home to a lot of older cars (the old style Civics, for example, I hadn’t seen in Auckland for a few years now) the clangers in Dunners probably took the cake.

There wasn’t really anywhere handy to park in the centre, so we just cruised around the town through the Octagon, tried to get to the beach (and failed), before heading to our first campground. This one was right behind St Kilda, which I thought would be a good idea to venture to just as it got dark. I was walking back to the camper after having a shower, when I spotted the sign for the beach and followed it on a whim … through bushes, through a field, and by the time I got there the sun had set entirely. I couldn’t trace my original path, so walked all the way back to the road and just around to the campground entrance.

Not only were the radio ads hugely entertaining the further south we went (ads about agri-engineering consultants and, er, effluent solutions), they also let me feel mighty smug.

“It’s practically a crime that so many Kiwis never get out and see their own country” boomed one, before going on to explain how you could win a fishing trip to Kaikoura.

“Well, hah! Look at us now,”  I sang out.

Penguin spotting

We skipped potential penguin-watching in Oamaru in favour of seeking them in the Catlins (the Catlin Coast straddles the bottom of the South Island and is home to a ton of sea life). NUGGET POINT CATLINS south island road trip campervanNUGGET POINT PLAQUE south island road trip campervanNUGGET POINT LOOKOUT CATLINS south island road trip campervan

We reached Nugget Point in the early afternoon, went for a jaunt up to the lookout point, cooked lunch and then settled in for a nap (when I tried to physically turn the page of my e-book, I knew it was time to give in to my drooping eyelids).

CAMPERVAN COOKING south island road trip campervan

Then it was back down around the corner to the penguin lookout point about 4.30; the critters start coming in from a day out at sea in the late afternoon as evening falls. There’s a dark, dank, low building at the end of the trail that has lookout windows and information about the birds; we were soon joined by a European couple, and a few others trickled in later on.

We didn’t see anything at all for about 15 minutes, but then a kindly old man who’d popped up and pointed out a very large, very still seal at the far end of the beach that we’d missed (thinking it was a log of driftwood) brought our attention to the first of the penguins toddling up on the beach!

You can kind of see the penguin in this picture…PENGUINS in the CATLINS south island road trip campervan

For the longest time, he was the only one ashore, and eventually hopped up into the grassy cliffs. That’s when we saw the other two surfing in, though that’s maybe putting it nicely. The penguins seemed to be more or less getting tossed around in the tides, and washing up roughly ashore, then shaking themselves off.

CATLINS PENGUINS NZMUSE south island road trip campervan

You’re restricted to viewing them from very far away as to not disturb their natural habitat; I cursed myself for not thinking to bring binoculars. YES – I actually own a pair, which was given to me on a yacht trip I was taken on earlier this year! I thought I’d never find a use for them, and I would, of course, have been wrong.

You basically can’t freedom camp anywhere around here, but I did wonder if anyone was actually policing that. What if we’d stayed until dark to watch all the penguins come in, and then just stayed in the carpark?

Road to Milford

My guide book suggested leaving for the Milford Sound from Te Anau. That worked out well for us, starting from Christchurch, and winding down and around the coast. It’s two hours from Te Anau, and more like five from Queenstown, where most people leave from (and where we headed to straight afterwards).

We paused by Lake Te Anau for a leisurely lunch…

LAKE TE ANAU CAMPERVAN south island road trip campervanThe only thing the pictures can’t convey is just how loud the squalling of the wild ducks were, shattering the peace of an otherwise serene scene.LAKE TE ANAU south island road trip campervanLAKE TE ANAU JUMP

September is apparently the height of the rainy season, but we had glorious dry weather the whole way (our guides in Milford told us it hadn’t rained for a few days, which is practically a drought in Milford – the wettest place in the country). The roads were empty and clear – as the woman from the Invercargill petrol station had told us, it was actually decently wide and smooth, though can no doubt turn treacherous in bad conditions. What we WEREN’T prepared for was the Homer Tunnel toward the end of the road. Pitch black, narrow and terrifying, it cuts under a mountain and emerges into a series of hairpin turns. >_<
MIRROR LAKES MILFORD SOUND south island road trip campervan
Along the way we stopped at the Mirror Lakes, which weren’t particularly reflective (as the rippled water demonstrates. It would have been neat to see the inverse sign reflected properly) and at a random waterfall. And as soon as we hit snow, T wanted to jump out and play in it – only everywhere that it was, there were signs forbidding stopping (“That would be TOO FUN, wouldn’t it?” he grumbled) due to avalanche danger.

MILFORD WATERFALL south island road trip campervanMILFORD WATERFALL 2 south island road trip campervanMILFORD WATERFALL 3 south island road trip campervan

It was actually slightly drizzly by the time we got to the sound itself, and I’ll admit, I was underwhelmed. Milford panoramas adorn every postcard out there, and reality on a somewhat overcast afternoon didn’t quite match up. Somehow it seemed so much smaller, so much narrower, in person. We got there late afternoon – too late for anything, really – and booked a cruise and kayak trip for the following morning.

milford sound nzmuse south island road trip campervan

Again, annoyingly, there was absolutely nowhere to park up and spend the night for free. There were lots of Department of Conservation campsites along the Milford Road, but none close to the far end – so we backtracked slightly to the lodge to find a legit campervan spot. It’s actually a mint place – we got a primo spot, one of two tucked quietly away into the bush (though it did mean we couldn’t open the doors or windows, because of the bugs) with lovely facilities, including magazines and board games in the lounge. We were right by the mountains, where the fog lay so low and ran for so long that I felt so utterly insignificant in comparison.

MILFORD sound FOG south island road trip campervan

The next day dawned clear and bright, and it turns out a cruise really is worth the money.

This is Bowen Falls at the mouth of the sound inland – taller than Niagara Falls.

BOWEN FALLS MILFORD SOUND south island road trip campervan

The natural colours of the rockfaces blew my mind.

MILFORD SOUND ROCKS south island road trip campervan

See those green streaks? Copper, apparently.

MILFORD SOUND ROCKS COPPER south island road trip campervan

The boat pulled up right underneath these falls, and put out glasses on the deck to be filled. WE DRANK WATER FROM THOSE FALLS:

MILFORD SOUND TWIN WATERFALLS south island road trip campervanMILFORD SOUND WATERFALL south island road trip campervanMILFORD SOUND WATERFALL RAINBOW south island road trip campervanMILFORD SOUND WATERFALL DRINK

I kept my eyes peeled as we headed out toward the open water and the waves got choppier, splashing us and washing up over out shoes at times (even hard experience from standing on Auckland buses didn’t prepare me for the juddering) but no dolphins saw fit to join us :{. We did see seals on both sides of the sound, though, on the way in and out.

MILFORD SOUND SEAL AND BIRD south island road trip campervan
Toward the end, we jumped out at the deepwater observatory and got to see what lies below the surface of the water up close, before setting out on our one-hour kayak journey around that little cove/inlet with one other pair of tourists – two Hawaiian women who both work on cruise ships, one as an engineer and the other as a party planner. T enjoyed the kayaking; I didn’t so much, mainly because I tire fast and we didn’t see any wildlife. It’s a gamble, though – those things are never guaranteed. (For the more intrepid, another company does 5 hour kayak trips. My arms are falling off just contemplating it.)

Milford is not a cheap destination. You could take tons of pictures along the route there, drive all the way to the end, take a few mediocre photos, and maybe do a little bit of trail exploring, I guess, but it’d be a real shame. And yes, even tramping the Milford Track costs. A lot. The Milford Track is one of the Great Walks of New Zealand, so you do have to plan well ahead if you want to do it, and shell out a bit of money (there is, however, an Air NZ competition on at the moment looking for a hardy type to undertake all 9 Great Walks).

Next up: back to Queenstown!

13 thoughts on “Road tripping the South Island: From penguin watching to cruising the Milford Sound

  • Reply Sense October 8, 2012 at 21:17

    “Stupidly beautiful”–haha, yes, that is NZ! Glad you finally made the trip! Sounds like it treated you well, and you even went to one place I haven’t been (gasp! I thought I’d seen everything. :)). Can’t wait for the next installment!

  • Reply addvodka October 9, 2012 at 11:47

    Wow, beautiful photos! I love that there were penguins. The only time I’ve ever seen a penguin is in the zoo/aquarium, which may show you how little I travel (regretfully).

  • Reply vanessasmoney October 9, 2012 at 12:24

    Penguins! I also loved the rainbows — especially that circle rainbow that you caught in one of the pictures 🙂

    • Reply eemusings October 9, 2012 at 12:50

      Mwaha. You do know the circle one was Photoshopped to highlight the green copper streaks right :P? (For some reason the halo changed to rainbow instead of red and I couldn’t work out how to change it back)

      • Reply vanessasmoney October 9, 2012 at 13:33

        Nooooo! I thought that it was so strange to see a circle rainbow in nature. I figured it was the magnification of a rain drop or something.

  • Reply Worth Mentioning #10 | Planting Our Pennies October 15, 2012 at 01:30

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  • Reply Angela Travels May 15, 2014 at 04:47

    Sounds like you had a similar road trip. Though your campervan looks very impressive! Looks like you had great weather for touring Milford Sound! I wish I would have spent more time there. I guess I will just have to go back 😛

  • Reply Michael Gannett July 16, 2014 at 06:22

    Our 28-days- in-October experiences were very similar to yours, also renting the same van, also in Christchurch, but traveling counter-clockwise. Yep, we put on 3K + kilometers. With advance booking, the campervan ran about US$100pd, plus fuel. We alternated between Holiday and DOC parks, which worked well for us. We saw up-close blue and yellow-eyed penguins, seals, the stupendous Moeraki boulders, and did the Fox glacier helicopter thing. Two do-not-misses (for us, mind you) were the beaches on the NE and SW ends of Kahurangi National Park, with wonderful birds, driftwood and sunrises/ sunsets. Lakes Hawea and Tekapo are scenic; but nothing beat the splendid solitude almost everywhere in October. We skipped Milford and Doubtful Sounds, having experienced the fjords in Norway and Chile. Between us (even though I was designated driver and am a photo-taking nut) we have 5k+/- photos to help remember a South Island journey we thoroughly enjoyed. I found your pieces of advice spot-on, having discovered many of the same things ourselves.

    • Reply eemusings July 16, 2014 at 11:22

      We went in September, so rental costs were a lot lower and we were able to get in some snow time. And our campervan was MUCH warmer than out cold drafty damp rental house 🙂 Definitely think it’s a great time of year for the South Island, if you’re happy to take a little risk weather-wise.

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