Whenever New Zealand is mentioned, we’ve always said how much we’ve wanted to explore the South Island. Imagine our excitement levels when we were finally making our way there!
I almost feel like I didn’t even take it all in.
The experience we had throughout the whole South Island was truly exceptional and unforgettable, so we’ve decided to split our blog and vlog into two parts to cover everything we did!
Read on to see our journey from Picton to Franz Josef via Nelson Lakes, Arthur’s Pass and Hokitika Gorge and then subscribe to Joe’s YouTube channel to get updates on future videos!
Catch up on the first part of our road trip around New Zealand, when we travelled from Auckland down to Wellington.
Watch the vlog
After an early start in the morning, we arrived in Picton and knew we had a big chunk of driving to do, to reach Arthur’s Pass before sunset.
We originally planned to go to Abel Tasman National Park, however for the activities and sights we wanted to see, timing didn’t work on our side. Being in a campervan and not booking accommodation really was a bonus and allowed us to be really flexible with our plans.
We stopped off at Lake Rotoiti first (about 2 hours drive from Picton), which gave us our first glimpse of what the South Island is all about. The scenery was so pristine; it literally looked fake and like something out of a National Geographic calendar.
We drove on a further few hours to stay at the Jackson’s Retreat in the Arthur’s Pass region. It got pretty dark quickly and driving in the campervan on the dark roads with heavy rain was actually quite scary.
Waking up at Jackson’s Retreat was so surreal as we arrived there in the dark the night before, so we didn’t realise we were sleeping in between mountains. The clouds were low and the fresh moist air in the morning gave us a good boost to carry on through Arthur’s Pass and Castle Hill.
Arthur’s Pass National Park is a pretty huge area to cover and the drive was utterly incredible. Seeing that bridge was insane. We were left thinking, how on earth did they built that?! How was this area discovered?! Who decided to even build this crazy road, it’s so high up?!
I bet it was Arthur’s idea.
Unfortunately, we arrived there slap bang in the middle of the day, which made the lighting pretty bad for photos. However we tried to salvage what we could in our edits, without having a crazy contrast between the bright sky and dark mountains.
I guess we’ve just got another excuse to visit New Zealand again!
We continued on the route from Arthur’s Pass to Castle Hill, blasting out our travel playlist through the mountains!
The scenery just got better and better, throughout our whole drive!
Joe knew he wanted to go to Castle Hill, as he’d seen photos from Monique O’Neil’s Instagram. You should definitely go and check her out, as it inspired us to discover loads of other places she’s snapped. If you like her stuff, leave a comment saying we sent you! ☺
As we made the most of the daylight hours around the Arthur’s Pass and Castle Hill area, we decided to stay nearby at Lake Pearson, which is one of the DOC campsites that ranked quite highly on the Camping NZ app.
For anyone who’s going camping around New Zealand, we’d highly recommend getting that app and downloading the offline maps for discovering places to stay. You can see photos, reviews and pricing for all sorts of campsites, lodges and various other retreats.
As we weren’t connected to any power at Lake Pearson, we couldn’t put our small heater on. Unfortunately, this night was probably the night we needed it the most. It was absolutely freezing!
We also saw a woman pitch up a tent and actually camped outside. In the wild! She did get a pretty solid looking fire going though.
On the way to Franz Josef where we were planning on staying, we stopped over at Hokitika Gorge to check out the crazy blue water and swing bridge. You find that when you’re planning a trip around New Zealand, there are so many stop overs to explore with hidden rivers and waterfalls along the way, you just have to go with the flow and see where you end up!
We were surprised at how milky the blue water was when we got to Hokitika. It didn’t really look that appealing to go into, not that we were hoping to do that, but still. It was pretty opaque.
I remember thinking that this was the first time we were really attacked by those annoying sandflies, especially when trying to stay still to film. They were literally everywhere. Joe was pretty unlucky and got loads of bites on his hands from when he was holding his camera, so make sure you stock up on a decent insect repellent and use it!
Franz Josef Glacier
The excitement levels coming into Franz Josef were unreal! We camped at The Rainforest Retreat for our first night which was quite the experience. Upon arrival, we immediately saw a few Contiki travel buses in the car park, so we knew it would be a bit of a lively camp.
The atmosphere was definitely for the backpacker, and those on travel packages tailored for young people. It’s a great place to stay with a really cosy ski lodge style bar and restaurant and even has some spa facilities too.
It turns out that the bar is pretty much where the whole town goes for a night out. Joe didn’t put it in the vlog, but that night AJ Hackett hosted a horizontal bar bungy game. People were competing to reach cocktails at the other end of the bar whilst being attached to bungies.
It’s kinda hard to explain, but for some reason everyone was naked.
There’s a reason it’s not in the vlog…
Franz Josef is most famous for the huge glacier that runs off the mountains towards the Tasman sea. The whole town literally exists because of the tourism to the area for recreational and scientific activities. The glacier is one of the fastest moving glaciers in the world, often advancing at a rate about 10 times that of an average glacier!
The variety of activities available at Franz Josef is awesome and so typically extreme for New Zealand.
We had an early helicopter flight around the main peaks of the Southern Alps; including Mount Cook/Aoraki — New Zealand’s highest peak. We even got to land on the glacier for about 10 minutes and experience being on top of the mountain.
It was our first time being in a helicopter and it was definitely surreal to be able to have a full overview of the mountains and beautiful scenery.
Following the Helicopter Flight, we headed over to the Franz Josef Base Camp to meet up with the Glacier Guides and take another trip to the glacier. I wasn’t actually feeling too well and had to pull out right at the last minute, so I wasn’t able to experience it which I was gutted about.
Joe carried on and he got to go on another helicopter ride to go hiking through the glacier. He got taken on a 3 hour tour of the glacier and came back buzzing with excitement for all the knowledge he’d gained about the glacier and the new friends he’d made with the guides!
The hike can be a bit physically taxing, due to the cramped spaces between the ice ridges, but nothing the average person can’t handle to be honest. Due to the equipment you need to carry, you’re only allowed to take one camera with you, but I think Joe got a great selection of shots for both you and me to see!
When you book the Glacier Explorer walk, you also get free entry to the Glacier Hot Pools which is right behind the Franz Josef Glacier Base on the main road. I think it’s a great package to combine, as you get pretty tired and sweaty from the hike, so when you come back you get to warm up and take a nice relaxing dip!
We weren’t really expecting to stay at Franz for another night, but Joe was talking with the Explorer guides and they invited us for drinks in town, so we decided to enjoy the night rather than risk driving in the dark to our next stop.
We moved to the Franz Josef Campervan Park for our second night stay, due to convenience of it being right across from the Glacier Hot Pools — though the town is pretty small and easily walkable everywhere.
One thing we kept on noticing throughout our trip was the complete lack of traffic lights in any of the small towns, that’s how quiet everywhere is. There’s never any traffic! It was bizarre thinking about it, especially as we live in London and we’ve been travelling to extremely populated cities.
It was the first time I’d really felt like I was in such a remote area of the world. We really enjoyed our time in Franz Josef from the activities we did and the extremely friendly people we met along the way, so we just want to collectively say thanks, guys. It was unreal!
Read on for the third and final part of our epic road trip across New Zealand!
If you’re looking to do your own road trip across New Zealand, check out our full itinerary, complete with a map and top tips for a campervan road trip!
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