An American family’s account of a two-month epic New Zealand campervan road trip, on both the North and South Islands.

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Guest Post by Erin Thiem, Inn Town Campground

After reading about Erin’s epic New Zealand road trip adventures, be sure to check out her Top 10 New Zealand Road Trip Destinations.

An Epic New Zealand Road Trip: Our Story

We sat on the sandy Ruapuke Beach just outside the hip surfer town of Raglan on the Tasman Sea in New Zealand having a complete and total meltdown. Our family, including two small children ages two and five, had just spent the last two months doing a New Zealand road trip in a campervan. Ben, our older son, had reached the point where he could no longer deal with the daily adventures of traveling and decided then and there, in a very public place, to sit and scream for twenty minutes.

My husband and I looked at each other and wondered if the trip was worth it. Would our boys even remember this trip?

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Bluff at the southernmost tip of the South Island


We knew traveling around New Zealand was going to be an adventure, but we didn’t know what kind of adventure we were facing. Our family spent over two months traveling New Zealand, from the Lakes of Otago to the bottom Bluff to the northernmost point at Cape Reinga. In the end we drove 7904 kilometers (4911 miles), slept in our tent 47 nights, and somehow managed to co-exist with four people in close quarters. Our friends thought we were crazy to pack one cubic foot of clothing, complete with Icebreaker merino base layers and superhero capes. We had a 4-man tent, sleeping bags, a camera, a map, a few toys, and some camping cook gear all packed inside a Toyota HiAce campervan.


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Catlins, South Island


We not only survived the experience, but we got closer as a family. We came to appreciate the importance of adventure for everyone, trading off parks and pools for wine-tasting and museums. We stayed in holiday parks, camped, parked in friends’ driveways, used a family friend’s rustic summer cabin, commonly known in New Zealand as a bach, and visited a working sheep farm at the end of the road in the Marlborough Sounds.


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Nugget Point, Catlins, South Island


We had many favorite destinations on the South Island that other travelers might enjoy. Check out the glow worms in Te Anau. Visit the Catlins, where the coastal Curio Bay campground is surrounded by flax and located within walking distance of the 180-million-year-old fossilized forest. If you’re really lucky you’ll see the yellow eyed penguin. Tour the Otago Peninsula, and take your kids for a tour of the Cadbury Chocolate Factory in Dunedin. Blenheim is a place where every family member can enjoy something, from the Omaka Aviation Centre to wine tastings of some of the famous Marlborough sauvignon blancs.


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Parked on a beach in the Catlins, South Island


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Camping in Blenheim, South Island


Tip: If you are planning a New Zealand road trip of your own and plan to take your vehicle from the South Island to the North Island, it would be wise to book your ferry passage early, and whatever you do, don’t accidentally book the trip going the opposite direction.


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Ferry crossing from the South Island to the North Island


We loved staying in New Zealand holiday parks, serviced campgrounds in centrally located spots throughout the country, which offered us an affordable family-friendly place to sleep at the end of the road. While we remember the scenic views and culture, our children remember the trampolines, swimming pools, and playgrounds around New Zealand.


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Life is good with a bouncy pillow while camping.


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Home of the Lost Soles, Castlepoint, North Island


We sampled wine, visited museums, went to a dozen swimming pools, and built a number of sandcastles. We had our share of emotional meltdowns and only one van breakdown. We saw penguins and dolphins in their natural habitat and lions, tigers, and giraffes in their non-natural environment. We ate pies stuffed with minced lamb and drank flat white coffee drinks in countless cafes.


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Tongariro Crossing, Taupo, North Island


On the North Island some great stops were Te Papa, Wellington’s innovative and interactive National Museum, Ohope Beach, Cape Reinga’s scenic lighthouse, Ninety Mile Beach and the sand dunes, as well as Pampona Beach and thermal thermal activity in Rotarua. If you’re feeling adventurous, check out the Tongariro Crossing outside of Taupo, a 19.4-kilometre journey that crosses mountain passes and volcanoes.


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Thermal Activity in Rotarua, North Island


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Camping in Mt. Maunganui, North Island


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Pauanui, Coromandel, North Island


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Hot Water Beach, Coromandel Peninsula, North Island


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Bay of Islands, North Island


We visited amazing destinations such as Queenstown, Mt. Cook, and Huka Falls, but the trip really was about the moments in between. Those long hours on the road, together in the van, the nights camped under the stars, the endless deserted beaches, the time we traveled the World’s Forgotten Highway . . . unforgettable experiences that turn a trip into an adventure. Those are the memories we’ll keep, long after the others have faded away.


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Ninety Mile Beach, Northlands, North Island


Dan turned to me and said, “We knew it wasn’t going to be easy, and while our boys may not remember the details of this adventure, we’re giving them life skills that will help them down the road, a sense of adventure, a curiosity, an ability to adapt to new environments.”


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Cape Reinga, northernmost point of the North Island


While we had called New Zealand our home for 5 years, and the birthplace of both our children, we returned to California with a wicked case of the travel bug, several bottles of Central Otago Pinot Noir, and 1,791 photos from our journey.

All Photos: Erin Thiem

Our Epic New Zealand Road Trip Itinerary


South Island Route

  1. Wanaka
  2. Arrowtown
  3. Manapouri
  4. Bluff
  5. Curio Bay
  6. Dunedin
  7. Mt. Cook
  8. Geraldine
  9. Christchurch
  10. Hanmer Springs
  11. Blenheim
  12. Port Ligar (a farm at the end of the road in the Marlborough Sounds)
  13. Picton

North Island Route

  1. Lower Hutt
  2. Carterton
  3. Masterton (with a side detour to Castlepoint)
  4. Palmerston North
  5. Wanganui
  6. New Plymouth
  7. Tauramuni
  8. Taupo
  9. Napier
  10. Mahia
  11. Gisbourne
  12. Ohope Beach
  13. Waihi Beach
  14. Waipu Cove
  15. Paihia
  16. Houhara
  17. Ahipara
  18. Cape Reinga
  19. Matheson Bay
  20. Auckland
  21. Pauanui
  22. Papamoa Beach
  23. Rotarua
  24. Auckland
  25. Raglan
  26. Taupo
  27. Auckland

Map It!

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Top 10 New Zealand Road Trip Destinations


For more information, be sure to check out Erin’s Top 10 New Zealand Road Trip Destinations. As always we love hearing from our readers in the comments section below. Erin will be on board to respond to your questions regarding road trip travel through New Zealand.

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Erin Thiem lives in Nevada City, California, and runs a retro-themed motel called the Outside Inn.  She and her husband Dan are building a campground called the Inn Town Campground. They enjoy camping in their vintage 1957 Cardinal Teardrop and sleeping in a tent with their two boys, Ben and Josh. You can find Erin on FacebookTwitter, and Instagram.