How do you drive the length of a country (or near enough) in just over two weeks? Here’s how we managed to road trip New Zealand from Christchurch to Auckland and hit all the best spots along the way!
Selecting a Road Trip Partner
For such an epic road trip it’s important to know the person you’ll be spending all your time with is someone you trust. For me this came in the form of one of my closest friends; a beautiful person inside and out, she is the ying to my yang. We can talk forever and are very in sync, perfect for those tougher days. We picked up our car from Christchurch airport and after grabbing some supplies were off to drive through the rain and make our way in our fondly named car “Penelope” up the east coast.
The drive from Christchurch to Kaikoura was long enough to mean we reached the harbour town in the evening, and were soon looking for a hostel to stay at that evening. We called ahead and luckily they had beds free for us to just crash out for the night after a long first day of navigating the South Island roads
Unfortunately during our time there the weather was not on our side, and for a place known for its marine life this wasn’t idea. Nevertheless, we made use of the time and began by staying dry and planning our road trip and sampling the famous fish and chips. After the rain had stopped we took a short drive to Ohau Point Seal Colony at Half Moon Bay to see what seems like hundreds of seals line the rocks of the road. You can take a short walk towards the waterfall watching seal pups clamber upstream, and reach a spectacular scene at the top.
Making the most of the movie selection at the YHA hostel, we watched Boy – a Kiwi made movie about a Maori family, with particular focus on one son and his relationship with his father. A great movie that I’d highly recommend, it has hilarious but also dramatic and tender moments in there too.
The next morning we were up early to go dolphin watching. This is probably the most popular activity in Kaikoura, and although it is on the higher end for a budget backpacker it’s totally worth it. There’s an option to swim with the wild dolphins, but we opted for the slightly cheaper (and warmer) watching experience instead. It’s no exaggeration to say that there are hundreds of these beautiful creatures to be seen. They were all so playful, lively and curious around the boat too. It was amazing to think that these were untrained, wild animals that hadn’t been enticed to the area, they wandered these waters completely of their own doing and for their own benefit. The experience took up the whole morning, from a rocky journey out to sea and then time to watch the wildlife and stay warm with refreshments.
Before long we were back in the car ready to make the journey up along the coast once more, as we were leaving the South Island behind us (for now!).
We got into Wellington after making the long drive from Kaikoura up to the ferry at Picton, and then enjoyed an easy journey across the Cook Strait towards the North Island. Despite not having any place booked to stay, by some miraculous luck we managed to get a room in the Base hostel for the next two nights, and a free parking space. As it was St Patrick’s Day we headed out to the only Irish pub in the city, along with most of the population of Wellington, and enjoyed socialising and listening to Irish music in the high spirited atmosphere.
While in Wellington we reaped the benefits of having a car by driving over to Weta Cave, the studios where movie props, costumes, sets and so much more are made. We took the workshop tour and it was so much fun to hear anecdotes and stories of or guide’s time working at the workshop, plus hearing about movies and how they’re made is just so fascinating. Later that day we took a walk around the city enjoying the harbour views and art installations before treating ourselves to a cheap $5 Dominos before going for a relaxing drink and chat at the Hummingbird bar across the street from the hostel.
From Wellington we had a very long drive to Napier and Hawkes Bay, but at least the weather was absolutely stunning for the drive! On the way to Napier we drove through Hastings and took a drive to the top of Te Mata Peak where we went for a short walk to stretch our legs and enjoy the stunning views over the hills and into the Pacific Ocean to the east. I specifically say hills as they don’t quite seem as impressive as the mountains in the Southern Alps anymore! Once we finally reached Napier we quickly found a tourist info centre where we could pick up some information on how to plan our day, as it was already getting towards late afternoon.
We decided as we were in an area famous for wine making, to take a short trip out to Crabtree Farm Vineyard to spend an evening having a glass of wine and listening to some fun live music with the scenery being a sunset over the fields. We considered a night at some more live music, this time reggae, back in the town, but instead opted for an early night in.
That night we opted for freedom camping, where one sleeps in their vehicle for no charge in a designated spot. As such, this seemed like a novel and fun idea, and we were determined to make sure we enjoyed it as much as possible! It wasn’t the worst nights sleep, but also wasn’t the best… There was a lot of shuffling and shifting about to get comfy, but I think we got there despite the howling winds outside. Anything to save some cash right?!
We woke up to the sound of waves crashing and another beautiful day awaiting us, and took a light stroll around the Art Deco Capital to see the stylistic buildings and hints of this popular theme all over the place. On our way back to the car we went via the pier and outdoor performance space which overlooks the black sand beach, and then to a weekly market held just by the beach. We wandered about there before having our lunch in the Sunken Garden before making a move to our next destination.
Taupo & Tongariro Alpine Crossing
Not long into our drive we decided to change our route and aimed away from Gisbourne in favour of Taupo, due to the better weather. Once we arrived we spent some time taking the riverside walk to Huka Falls and chilling (or not!) in the natural hot springs. Having visited before, this was one place that I felt fairly confident knowing my way around, and it seemed strangely familiar which helped after a few days of busy roadtripping. We took an early night as we wanted to be fresh and ready for the mammoth hike awaiting us the next day…
We woke up around 5am, checked out and got to the start of the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. The extraordinary hike can take up to 9 hours, climbing various mountains and through all sorts of terrain and along the way you’ll encounter some spectacular views and walk through a stunning national park. As part of the hike visitors have the option to climb Mount Ngauruhoe, otherwise known as Mt Doom from Lord of the Rings! There were some hugely challenging areas, but we somehow made it to the top together after several rest stops, a few route guesses, and lots of complaining!
We enjoyed a well-earned lunch at the crater, marvelling at the cavernous pit below and the expanse of clouds beneath, before making the terrifying journey down again. While this was a quicker process, it was no less difficult to avoid tripping up!
After completing the mountain climb we were aware of the lengthly walk continuing ahead. As the weather changed to a chillier and wetter environment visibility became poor, but we persevered. At times along the walk we were treated to beautiful views across the park, but most of the time we were just trying to concentrate on getting to the next check point.
Once past the Emerald Lakes (looking a tad foggy in our weather sadly!) we knew we were getting closer to the end, and our spirits were lifted. A bit more up and down, we eventually cleared through the mountainous terrain and into a vast expanse of bush, and were able to follow a clearly marked track which took us down towards a woodland area. This was our chance to actually enjoy the crossing, and we had a wonderful time talking, walking, laughing, and marvelling at all we were accomplishing.
Soon after and hours after beginning we’d finally made it! I’ve never been so happy to see a car park in my life. We made it back to our car and were buzzing for the rest of the day. I’m so proud that we did it, and would encourage anyone considering the hike to just do it, you’ll be amazed at yourself! Check out this more detailed account of our Tongariro Alpine Crossing day hike and what to expect, plus the best tips for completing the Tongariro Crossing here!
Rotorua & Hobbiton Day Trip
A short drive to Rotorua meant we reached our Base hostel early before quickly setting off again to complete another NZ must-do activity – visiting Hobbiton. We drove to Matamata which is the small and otherwise empty town where the filming of the hobbit scenes took place, not far from Rotorua. We parked up and were quickly on a bus taking us over to the film set.
I had been ridiculously excited for this day for a long time, and it’s fair to say that it absolutely exceeded my expectations. There’s so much to see, and in such details it really is remarkable to see how much effort they went to in making the movies.
Each prop is perfectly useable, and our tour guide provided us with so many nuggets of information about how it all works I felt as though I came away having really learnt more than I did before (a tough challenge as I know a huge amount about those films!). For example, the lines of washing up outside the hobbit holes were put up and taken down every day for more than two months prior to filming, just in order to make the grass look trodden in a certain way and provide a more authentic aesthetic. Amazing! Who would have thought things like that would make a difference to a movie experience?! Apparently it does, as I’m sure many people would agree that the films were made with such precision and care that it really stands out against others.
We took a guided walk around the set, heard stories and took many, many photos, and we couldn’t have chosen a nicer and more “Shire-y” day for our visit. We ended the tour with a free on-site brewed drink at The Green Dragon (I chose the cider) which was again, everything I had hoped it would be.
The next morning we were woken up to realise that there was some absolutely horrendous rain and wind. So while we had planned to do some short river and waterfall walks that morning we quickly decided not to bother and instead head straight to Coromandel which was to be our next destination in the hopes the weather had improved in the north. We took the drive along the coast via Thames and after many winding turns made it to Coromandel Town. Unfortunately there wasn’t a huge amount for us to do as the weather there was pretty dreadful, so we walked around the main streets a bit before settling down in a pub where we could keep dry, catch up on various tasks and get some food. We were there for the rest of the evening before a sleep in the car, which would have been fine were it not for being woken up at various times thanks to the wind and rain!
90 Mile Beach
Waking up the morning after we had a slight panic when we realised the car wouldn’t start, as the battery was dead! Luckily for us there was a mechanic across from the car park and they jump started it and told us to drive for a while to recharge it, not a problem as we were heading for a long drive anyway.
This was to be our longest day of driving as we were going through Auckland where city driving is always slower, over the bridge, then allllll the way to the top of the country where we wanted to reach 90 Mile Beach. I think in total we must have driven for around 7 or 8 hours that day, of course we stopped occasionally for drinks and snacks in main towns such as Whangarei and Thames. We were lucky that once we got past Auckland the weather changed dramatically to go from the dark and miserable overcast clouds to bright sunshine and blue skies, hooray!
90 Mile Beach is one of the most northern parts you can possibly drive to, and I had been determined to make it as I’d heard some great things about the area. We were not disappointed in the slightest, as we made it up to the beach itself at the most perfect time for the sunset, a gorgeous and picture perfect view to end a long day. We slept in the car at a freedom campsite, which also so happened to be someone’s garden. The family were friendly and kind enough to allow us to use their bathroom, and their dogs were appreciative of a petting too!
We moved on down the island to spend a lovely afternoon relaxing in Paihia, which is part of the Bay of Islands. There’s a fair amount to do there, and I’d definitely go back if I had the chance but sadly we were getting tight for time at this point. After walking along the beachfront and up the main streets, we headed off to Tutukaka where we were staying with a friend that night.
It’s on this stretch of driving that our car problems began… As we followed our trusty SatNavs guidance of what I can only assume is considered the quickest route, we took a turn off the main highway onto a very unsurfaced gravel track which took us through farmland. Unfortunately the car wasn’t not well equipped for this road, and it struggled to make it’s way around a bend meaning we slowed towards a grass bank on the side of the road. We got out the car to check all was ok, to discover the coolant was leaking pretty quickly thanks to the loose stones. Nothing else seemed to have a problem so we had little choice but to drive on the remaining 15km or so to our destination before we could take a further look.
As we pulled slowly into the town, what later turned out to be the fan made the most horrendous noise, and we were pretty grateful to have made it slowly but steadily somewhere with other people around! After taking a look at the engine, with the helpful assistance of a couple of local mechanics, it turned out the car was beginning to overheat pretty dramatically (so much so the dipstick melted!). They refilled the coolant (with no further leak) and deemed it safe enough to drive as long as we were careful and didn’t stop too frequently.
After some panicked calling of the hire company and of the AA we decided from the advice given we would continue on as normal, and deal with the issue if it arose again in Auckland, as there wasn’t much we could do where we were and we were so close to the city anyway. So we tried to forget about it, and made our way to our friends’ house for dinner and good company.
Saturday saw us tentatively approach Penelope to see how she was doing. We took another look under the hood to discover the reason the fan made such a bad noise was because rocks were stopping it turning properly. We fixed it up, and were on our way with no noise, overheating or issues at all for the rest of the drive. Phew! It seemed the problem was over, so once we got to Auckland and parked up at a friend’s house and left her there, we decided not to risk further injury to the poor old girl!
An afternoon wandering and exploring Auckland on a beautiful day it seemed as though our last day in New Zealand was shaping up to be a good one. We cooked a fabulous dinner with whatever food we had left and were heading out for a few drinks with a friend.It was a great final evening, all except for a missing passport scare (not ideal before leaving a country!).
By the morning all was well and we were dropping the car off at the airport, saying a final goodbye to this beautiful, wonderful place. Now after 2 weeks of driving across New Zealand I can firmly say this is one of the best ways to see the country, and can cost as little or as much as you prefer. I’d absolutely recommend embracing the Kiwi roads and seeing what gems you find along the way!
Have you taken a road trip in New Zealand or somewhere amazing that you’d recommend? Share you story and let me know where you want to drive!