Camping tour in New Zealand’s South Island

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Follow this beautiful 7-day self-drive itinerary for a memorable camping tour at the top of New Zealand's South Island between an incredible kayaking adventure which the whole family can enjoy in Marlborough and Tasman.

Days 1-2: Christchurch > Marfells Beach

4 hours, 270 km along State Highway 1

Camping Tour at Marfells Beach, New Zealand

My self-drive South Island camping tour started in Christchurch, because that’s one of the easiest places to find Maui motorhome and car rentals in NZ. Also because I was coming from the south. Starting in Christchurch, though, certainly wasn’t a bad thing. Because following State Highway 1 north soon got me onto the rugged and beautiful Kaikoura coastline, famous for whale-watching and playful seals sunbathing on the rocks.

After an energising coffee in quirky Kaikoura, the first stop on my itinerary was Marfells Beach, 40 km south of Blenheim on the south side of Lake Grassmere. After a very comfortable night at the Department of Conservation (DOC) campsite there, which offered an amazing sunrise over the Pacific Ocean to wake up to, I set out to walk the Cape Campbell Route trail.

Cape Campbell marks the southernmost extreme of Cook Strait, and I was lucky with the clear day to enjoy views all the way around White Bluffs and Arapawa Island to the North Island. The trail follows the beach, and I had to mind tide levels since you can only access the historic Cape Campbell Lighthouse at low tide. The walk took over 3 hours each way, and I was relieved only to be driving another 100 km onto my next destination: the Pelorus river in the Marlborough Sounds.

Days 3-4: Pelorus Bridge > Mapua

98 km, 1 hour 15 minutes

Camping Tour at Pelorus Bridge, New Zealand

I had read a lot about the famous Hobbit Kayak Tour from Pelorus Eco Adventures, which takes you down a section of the Pelorus river used in filming The Hobbit. But I hadn’t done much research on local campgrounds. So, I consulted Campermate NZ, a smart phone app I came to rely upon for finding last-minute sites for camping in New Zealand, and in lieu of any free camping sites I headed to the nearest DOC campsite at Pelorus Bridge. This turned out to be a spectacular find.

Surrounded by pristine forest and situated beside a gorgeous swimming hole on one of New Zealand’s most beautiful rivers, the Pelorus Bridge campground was an ideal base for activities. I did the 1-hour glow worm walk to a waterfall in the evening, and after the brilliant Hobbit Kayak Tour the next day I took another forest trail to spot the rare, native long-tailed bat population living nearby. No more than 5 minutes after leaving the camp grounds on this track, I also spotted NZ’s native wekas roaming and foraging beside me!

Thoroughly satisfied with my day kayaking and wildlife watching on this beautiful New Zealand river, I drove the campervan onto the picturesque, windswept peninsula of Mapua. Campermate NZ showed several freedom camping NZ free camp sites along the way, but I was glad I continued onto Mapua, where I found a charming little campground on a stunning, wind-swept peninsula wedged between Ruby Bay and Rabbit Island. The facilities were almost as impressive as the scenery and serenity.

Days 5-6: Mapua > Abel Tasman National Park

36 km to Kaiteriteri, then a 10-minute boat ride

Camping Tour at Awaroa, New Zealand

I took the opportunity of an early start to join a kayak tour from Kaiteriteri, just 40 minutes from Mapua, which took me into the sandy coves, deserted beaches, and iconic rock formations that have made Abel Tasman famous in photos around the world. Next on the map for my camping tour, however, was a bit further on. Somewhere very special. I left the campervan at Kaiteriteri beach and took a boat to Awaroa Bay.

Awaroa is a secluded beach that was in the news in 2017. It was the focus of a huge crowd-funding campaign that saw the New Zealand public pitch in to buy the beach back from a private owner. After that it became part of Abel Tasman National Park. Its glittering sea, golden sand, and mountainous surroundings make it easy to see why kiwis thought it worth fighting for. Leaving Campermate NZ, DOC campsites, and free camping locations behind for the night, I treated myself to a night of glamping in the forest around Awaroa Bay. I arrived at this idyllic location and found a tent set up like it was somebody’s home: double bed made, deck chairs with sea views set up, and the fire of a pizza oven burning away. Perhaps I hadn’t done enough physical activity to earn such luxurious means of camping in New Zealand’s crowd-funded public beach haven. But I certainly wasn’t about to complain.

Day 7: Kaiteriteri > Kahurangi National Park

45 minutes to Upper Takaka, then 28 km on country roads to Cobb Reservoir

Camping Tour at Cobb river, New Zealand

I found it hard to leave Awaroa, but not as hard as the Maui motorhome found it to tackle the serious South Island country roads between Upper Takaka and the Cobb Reservoir, the location of the tremendously secluded Cobb River Camp Site. Backed by the wild mountains of Kahurangi National Park, this photogenic camp site was to be the endpoint of my camping itinerary. It is only the start, however, of multiple hiking trails leading up the picturesque Cobb Valley and through the national park to the West Coast.

My 90-minute hike from Trilobite Hut on the Cobb River up to Chaffey Hut, a restored historic miner’s hut, was a good introduction to the immense beauty of this region. It was also more than enough to convince me that I need to plan a similar camping tour, for the West Coast, in the (very) near future!

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