There’s nothing more quintessentially “kiwi summer” than loading up a chilly bin and heading away camping for a few nights.
That made it sound like it’s easy though.
Unless you are able to have all of your camping gear in two boxes in your garage full time, chances are it takes a good couple of lists and half a day of planning to get everything sorted for a trip away. Even then though, add on an hour of spider checking the gear that’s been sitting in the garage for years (this is important! Especially sleeping bags!) and a re-re-pack of the car, we can safely come to the verdict that camping isn’t as simple as just deciding to go and going.
But all of that admin aside… I bloody love it!
New Zealand, in particular the south of the South Island, didn’t quite get the memo that it was summer this year. There’s been fresh snow on the Remarkables by Queenstown, a lot of rain and gale force winds that knock ya socks right off.
The weather wasn’t going to put me off camping this season though!
Read on for information at camping at Aoraki/Mt Cook & Lake Hāwea - some of my favourite spots around the Canterbury/Otago area of the South Island in New Zealand.
A lot of the following information has been supplied from the DOC website. After a hilarious DM on instagram from a follower in the United States, I have realised I need to point out for any international readers that DOC in New Zealand stands for Department of Conservation NOT the Department of Corrections. As awesome as that would be these campsites are not run by prisoners.
A couple of years ago I had the outline of Aoraki/Mt Cook drawn up by my friend Jade (@jades.empire) and tattooed on the back of my arm by my circus friend Joey (@tatsbyjoey) There’s no denying it is my favourite place in all of New Zealand, maybe even the world. It’s where my family and I have always gone when sh*t has gotten a little bit tough, when we just need to get away for a day or when we’ve wanted to celebrate something awesome. Now I’ve realised camping there is so easy I make sure I go anytime I can.
The view at Kea Point lookout (January 2019)
Along SH8 at the bottom* of Lake Pukaki there’s a turn off on to Mount Cook Road (SH80)
Drive the length of Lake Pukaki towards the mountains and it’s around about 55kms from the turn off to the Mount Cook Village. If it’s a good day and she (Mt Cook) isn’t in cloud be prepared to make numerous stops along to way to marvel at her beauty (and take a couple of snaps for instagram!) But for the love of all things instagram, watch out for cars suddenly stopping (don’t be one of them! Indicate!) and be careful as people will be standing on the road getting their infamous open road picture.
* I’ve said bottom but please know I have no idea north, south, east, west at the best of times and didn’t want to try and be all geographically correct in case I got it terribly wrong. I guess it’s more like the side of Lake Pukaki... It’s pretty obvious when you’re driving and I don’t think you can miss it. And anyway, put your satnav or google maps on! Or make the passenger have a good old fashioned paper road map (can just hear my Mum saying, “yes back in my day we didn’t have google maps!” haha love you Mum.)
Once you’re approaching the Mount Cook Village, turn right at Hooker Valley Road and follow the road in. When driving in to the car park keep driving until you see the campground rego area and “Campground Parking Only”. You’re there!
WHITE HORSE HILL CAMPGROUND
Managed by DOC NZ
60 non-powered/tent sites
Bookings not required. It’s a first come first pick sitch
$15 per night/per person payable at the donation box ($7.50 for children aged 5 - 17)
Running water - treated and suitable for drinking (make sure you check the sign before drinking though!)
Plenty of toilets, rubbish/recycling bins and shelter for cooking.
There are access to hot showers in a shelter in the village (2.5kms up the road)
Good morning! The view from our camp spot in January 2019
In the car park you will find the campground registration hut where you can take a form in a small plastic bag. One form will be for you to place on the windscreen of your car/outside your tent/on your camper van and one form goes back inside the plastic bag with your money. Simply pop that in the box inside the rego hut and you’re done! There are rangers patrolling this campground so don’t be a dick and not pay!
Jonas didn't know he was actually being a model for this but look at him go! What a pose!
Here is a short summary of my favourite walking tracks, but you can find a more detailed post about them right here.
KEA POINT - My favourite walking track here!
1 hr from Mt Cook Village/30 mins from White Horse Hill Campground carpark
Absolute heaven. Now you don't have to wear a high viz t shirt when walking the Kea Point track, but I certainly won't get lost that's for sure!
If you’re strapped for time and still want an incredible view of the mountains, this walk is a MUST. It’s generally a super easy track, hardly any incline (180m over 3kms if you start from the Village, probably even less if you start from White Horse Hill Campground), and within 30 minutes of average paced walking you are RIGHT. THERE. It takes you around the left side of the campground, through the subalpine grasslands, past the closest mountains and right to the Mueller Glacier lake. From here there’s a viewing platform and incredible views of Mount Sefton, the Mueller Glacier lake and wall, and of course, Aoraki/Mt Cook.
FYI: I haven’t seen any keas here though!
10kms return via the same track/3 hours return from the White Horse Hill Campground carpark
I haven’t walked the Hooker Valley track in years! As far as my memory can remember, it’s insanely stunning. It’s a mostly flat 10km return track, with 124m change in elevation. There are three swing bridges along the way and you get incredible views of Mueller Lake and the Hooker River as you cross the bridges and Hooke Lake, Aoraki/Mt Cook and the Southern Alps at the end. But even if you only do part of the walk you are still in for a treat. Just know that everyone is also doing this track with you so try and go early to avoid the crowds. (Tour buses usually arrive by 11am.)
TASMAN GLACIER VIEW/BLUE LAKES
Turn onto Tasman Valley Road off SH80 (just before the village and Hooker Valley Road) and follow the road in, over the one lane bridge, all the way to the car park. I think this is roughly 7kms.
Do not be fooled by the sign saying “Tasman Glacier View 15 mins” here. Maybe 15 minutes if you were an insanely talented mountain runner. This walk is all uphill. With steps. Lots of steps. Now it’s possible not all of you reading this will have an autoimmune neurological chronic illness that affects the state of your legs… But I do. So let me tell you (and for any of you reading who can relate) only do this track if you’re feeling up to it. Luckily for me, just before Christmas, I was feeling strong enough.
Case in point
It’s short, but it’s a toughie. Luckily stopping every so often to catch your breath is acceptable for the views. Along the way you will stumble upon the Blue Lakes which is a popular spot for swimming. The Blue Lakes tend to look a bit green though - water looks blue from the glacial water, but the combo of rain water mixed in makes the Blue Lakes look green.
Struggle aside though, the views are 100% worth it. At the platform you are looking down at New Zealand’s longest glacier (Tasman Glacier is 27kms!) and you are viewing Aoraki/Mt Cook from the other side to Kea Point. It is simply magical. Again, like the Hooker Valley track, a lot of people are also here (probably because the 15 minute exaggeration is so alluring!) so the viewing platform can get super crowded. Be careful on the rocks!
Look, this panorama photo on my $300 phone really doesn't do it justice
SEALY TARNS/MUELLER HUT
5.2km one way/about 4 hours one way from the Mt Cook Alpine Village
While walking the Kea Point track you will notice a turn off for the Searly Tarns track. I’ve never done this track or carried on the Mueller Hut but I have vicariously lived through a few instagram stories of this track! What an absolute DREAM. One day I hope to be strong enough to do this :)
More info on this route can be found HERE
There's no point of posting this photo here except I wanted to show off the amazing breakfast we made on Christmas Eve haha
It’s 7:14AM and Jonas and I are staying at Kidds Bush Campground along the shore of Lake Hāwea. We survived the night before the night before (like, the night before last night? I know this doesn't make sense but it made me chuckle while writing it... anyway carrying on...) in torrential rain with the biggest thunder and lightning storm I have ever experienced (it’s possible that it felt like the biggest because there was only one tiny piece of tent fabric between me and the pouring rain, booming echoes of thunder and would 100% catch on fire if struck by lightning…) but after drying our gear in the sun all day we finally got a good night’s sleep the night before.
But it’s 7:14AM and there’s a piercing scream from the campsite two doors down.
Is someone being murdered?
7:15AM. Another scream.
It’s two ladies.
Am I dreaming?
Murder feels likely. Do I move? Do I see what’s happening? Am I about to be murdered? Will I be so dead I won’t get to see Ziggy Alberts in concert at the Lake Hāwea Hotel tonight? Do murderers know about this little DOC campsite?! There’s hardly any cell phone reception here? At least my Mum knows where I am and she would go looking for me.
“IT WAS BETWEEN THE SIZE OF A COCKROACH AND A MOUSE!!”
Okay. So I’m not going to get murdered. (But can you really blame me for wondering?)
While there is distant laughter and amused murmurs from the men of the group my mind has gone to the part in How I Met Your Mother when Lily and Robin see the infamous cock-a-mouse and Marshall throws it out the window. Must find that on youtube and link it on the blog.
(Lol that the first comment on this youtube video is, “these guys wouldn’t last two minutes in Australia.”)
Another earth shattering screams snaps me back to the present moment. 7:21AM.
“It’s a mouse!!!!”
“Well where is it then?” “It’s gone behind the fridge!!”
A series of bangs ensue as the search for the bigger-than-a-cockroach-but-smaller-than-a-mouse mouse continues.
Firstly, let’s address the elephant in the room. They have a fridge in that orange tent!?
“BRAD!” (name protected and changed) “I KNOW IT’S A MOUSE BUT RIGHT NOW IT FEELS LIKE IT’S AS BIG AS A BLOODY POSSUM!”
Brad, as helpful as ever, a true Kiwi gentleman, as the mouse roams freely in their orange tent slash caravan says, “I mean there’s probably hundreds of them out here anyway.”
No. Not helping Brad.
Suddenly, just while I’m reaching the moment of the early morning when you’re not sure if you’re asleep but partially aware of your own brain or actually awake and just paralysed, the mouse makes a run for it out of the tent.
“Oh for f*cksake!” says the woman sleeping with her 4 year old in the tent next to me.
You said it sister.
Mouse drama aside, this quaint DOC campsite nestled along the shore of Lake Hāwea is a personal favourite. (Can confirm I myself have never had a mouse in my tent and I’ve stayed here four times.)
I almost don’t want to publish this because I love my little slice of paradise. But now after researching the details and the exact kms, Kidds Bush Reserve Campground is actually on google maps so, meh.
The campsite is on Meads Road - a gravel road that sits on private property. There’s hardly any traffic on this road except for herds of cows and their calves. Be careful if driving at night, make sure you slow down when going past the cows.
To find Meads Road, driving from Wanaka (SH84), Tarras (SH8A) or Cromwell (SH6) turn off onto Albert Town-Lake Hāwea Road (SH6). Drive over the river, through Albert Town (another popular camping spot for summer) and pass the turn off for Lake Hāwea township. (But if you have time definitely go in there and get yourself an icecream from the dairy! You won’t regret it!) From the Lake Hāwea township intersection Meads Road is about 49kms away on the right. There isn’t a sign for the DOC campsite, so pay attention! The main road turns into Makarora-Lake Hāwea Road and follows the side of the lake. If you are driving and you’ve gone past the lake… You’ve gone too far! Then it’s just a 6km drive to the campsite.
KIDDS BUSH RESERVE CAMPGROUND
Managed by DOC
40 non-powered/tent sites
Bookings are required online (I think just during the summer season? Best to check online first!) but it’s still first come first pick in terms of where you put your tent/camper
$8 per night/per person ($4 for children aged 5 - 17)
3 flush toilets, a shelter for cooking, NO rubbish bins and there is running water but it hasn’t been treated for drinking so make sure you boil before using.
(Speaking of rubbish, don’t leave your rubbish out in the open. If there are possums around they will absolutely get in there and make even more of a mess. Nobody has time for that at 7AM in the morning after two ladies have been screaming about a mouse!)
The only hot tip I have about camping at this campsite is make sure you think about where you put your tent. With the weather forecast shouting RAIN RAIN RAIN EVEN MORE RAIN for our first night there this summer, we still had selective hearing and chose to camp anyway. Thankfully we didn’t put our tent in one of the dips because the next morning we were surrounded by giant puddles. During the New Years period there are also families with their big toys, so don’t be alarmed if a kiwi bloke asks you to move your tent so they can reverse their boat and jetskis out. I have found, as inconvenient as that may be, that watching these lads* reverse their big boy toys can be quite hilarious. Have your camping chair, drink and chips and dip at the ready.
*yes okay, of course not all lads.
KIDDS BUSH NATURE WALK & OTHER THINGS TO DO
There is a walk here and I have never done it! If you do it, tell me whether it’s good or not. It would appear as though it’s an easy, short 1km loop track starting from the top of the campground. To be honest, I am always quite content swimming in the lake, reading or drawing (or more recently playing banagrams) on the shore and cooking up a giant feast (because food always tastes better when cooked outside, right!)
This is a Wacaco minipresso coffee machine. If you travel a lot and love coffee... You need one of these. All the information is here (thank me later)
I grew up on a farm so the lush green fields and lots of cows thing doesn’t excite me too much, but I can imagine if you are from a bustling city like London or LA you might be incredibly amazed at the road in and the sounds of hundreds of cows “mooing” in the morning. And then again, with that being said, I did grow up on a farm and I still find the scenery here incredible! It’s an easy place to go for a night away from the hustle and bustle of Queenstown or a close enough campsite if you’re going to a gig at the Lake Hāwea Hotel (we went to see Ziggy Alberts this year and if you haven’t listened to his music before I recommend you do!)
If you end up exploring either of these areas, do let me know! Comment on this post or tag me @jessssbrien on instagram. Nothing makes my heart sing more than people taking my recommendations in my favourite places in New Zealand!
Stay safe & happy exploring x