Into NZ's wilderness - a grand motorhome road trip

Growing up in our family, a love of the outdoors was inevitable. My dad was a keen hiker and took me and my brothers on many day walks and a few overnight hikes as well. He always recorded the moments on whatever camera he happened to own at the time and looking back now I can see how these experiences paved the way for my eventual passion for landscape photography, and my desire to capture scenes like this! 

After several South Island trips to capture images for my own portfolio, an idea sprouted to bring my dad on a trip down south to show him some of my favourite places, some which he hadn’t seen for 20-50 years, and some never at all. He jumped at the chance to accompany me and so our grand father-daughter NZ adventure was born. So on the first day of winter we hopped on a plane from Hamilton to Christchurch, marvelling at the sight of Mount Taranaki, Nelson Lakes and the Southern Alps out the window on the flight down. After picking up our luxurious Cruise 4 motorhome from Wilderness Motorhomes we were on our way, first stop Mount Cook.

Day 1: Christchurch to Mount Cook

An unusually still period of weather meant the Mackenzie area was mostly blanketed under a thick layer of fog and hoar frost - a sight which neither of us had seen before. We stopped to admire the first patch we came across, little realising that the entire region would be the same. 
This meant that even Lake Pukaki (known for its brilliant aqua blue water) was hidden from view, and it wasn’t until we were almost at Mount Cook village that the skies cleared, just in time for us to watch the last light leaving the peaks. 
We stood roadside admiring the mountain vista before us as several flocks of Canadian geese flew in formation overhead. The joy on Dad's face at being back amongst his beloved mountains was clearly visible, it was a magical start to our journey!
We camped the night at White Horse Hill campsite under the shadow of all the great peaks in Aoraki National Park, and after a spot of dinner, I got the camera out to see how the stars were looking. By this stage, the moon had already risen over Mount Sefton, creating an almost daytime effect. The skies are so unbelievably clear in this part of NZ, that star gazing is an absolute treat, and the magellan clouds were clearly visible above the motorhome parked up for the night. 
Despite the fact it was -5 degrees overnight, we were tucked up cosy with the incredibly efficient gas heating onboard our Cruise 4 motorhome. There were so many cool features of our motorhome - my bed that dropped down from the dining room ceiling every night, the awesome lighting that made it seem like you were in a proper home not on the road, our driving chairs that swivelled round to create a real dining room and fantastic storage throughout (including hidden cavities in the floor) so there was no need to trip over your gear every time you moved.

Day 2: Mount Cook to Lake Matheson

We awoke to pea soup thick fog which immediately put paid to my plans to capture a sunrise at Tasman Glacier and show Dad the incredible glacial lake and icebergs. Gradually the fog lifted from Mount Cook by 9am so my plan to walk into Hooker Lake for sunset looked hopeful. After a coffee at The Hermitage with views of Mount Cook out the window to die for, we headed off on a little jaunt into the valley. Unfortunately the fog rolled right back in at that point, and there were only passing views visible. 
I’d planned to surprise my dad with a glacier flight over the mountains at lunchtime, but even this became increasingly unlikely as the fog refused to shift. Weather forecasts suggested the conditions could stay the same for the next few days so at 1pm we made the difficult decision to leave the area in search of better conditions. 
The drive through Twizel towards the Lindis Pass was like a scene out of a winter wonderland with hoar frost clinging thickly to all the trees but with many kilometres to travel and daylight hours diminishing, we had to settle for enjoying the scene from the motorhome and kept on driving. We reached Lake Hawea and Lake Wanaka during golden hour and stopped several times to capture the incredible light playing on the mountains, clouds and water. 
We had just enough time for one more stop at Cameron Flat to catch the pink afterglow on snowcapped mountains before driving through the Haast Pass in the dark, and up the West Coast arriving at Fox Glacier late enough to eat a late bite of dinner and head to bed, with plans for an early sunrise at Lake Matheson. 

Day 3: Lake Matheson, Franz Josef and Gillespies Beach

Hiking to the viewpoint Lake Matheson well before dawn, we were treated to a magical view of the mountains lit up by the moon while the stars were still out. 
Lake Matheson is famous for its mirror image reflections of Mount Cook and Mount Tasman and it had been a dream of mine for such a long time to see it like this and to show my dad for the first time as well. The sunrise was perfectly clear and watching the light reach the peaks for the first time was entirely magical. It was pretty hard to tear ourselves away. 
After such a long drive the day before, we decided to stay in the area for the day, driving up to Franz Josef to catch a glimpse of the glacier way up the valley, and to marvel at Peters Pool with its mirror reflections. 
We also took a drive out to Gillespies Beach (it’s so great that there’s no restrictions on driving Wilderness Motorhomes on unsealed roads so long as they are in decent condition) and enjoyed a cuppa marvelling at how clear the views were of the Southern Alps all the way from the coast.
Then it was time to hike back into Lake Matheson for sunset. Even though we’d thought sunrise was fantastic, sunset was even better. The glow that settled over the mountains at sunset went from orange to red then pink and eventually purple. The colour stayed on the mountains and in the clouds long after the sun had set. 
To top off one very magical day here, we decided to wait to see the Milky Way rise over the lake. Although there was still dappled cloud around, the stars were clearly visible from behind adding another layer of mystique to this magical place. We left with hearts full and happy, knowing we would never forget this day. 

Day 4: Lake Matheson to Cameron Flat

I couldn't resist just one more trip out to the lake for sunrise, which meant we were either suckers for punishment or just making the utmost of good conditions after driving 7 hours to get here and with no idea when we will next get the chance to return?! The morning didn't disappoint either - it was a totally different sunrise to the day before with some lovely golden light to ooh and aah over.

We took our time driving back down the West Coast, stopping first at Lake Paringa to enjoy the solitude and lakeside reflections.
Then it was onwards heading through the Haast Pass, a journey that Dad had only done once in the 1960’s and only partway as the road hadn’t even been completed all the way through the Pass at that point. He is a HUGE fan of the South Island beech forests so he was in his element driving through here.
We stopped at Thunder Creek Falls (one of my favourite waterfalls in the area) and at the Gates of Haast before driving over the summit and back down towards Wanaka through the Makarora Valley.
We stopped in at the Cameron Flat campsite for afternoon tea and a toilet break, and actually ended up camping there for the night. I had a little bit of work to catch up on and it was such a scenic spot to be in and with no cell phone reception it meant we could really unwind and relax and just enjoy being in the wilderness. Out came the wine and cheese while we enjoyed reminiscing about all the amazing sights we’d seen so far. 
Although we were a wee way from civilisation, everything was just so easy in our Wilderness Motorhome because of how well equipped it is - once again the heating came into its own but even more importantly for me the ability to charge the laptop and camera batteries off the 12 volt battery power inverter - I'd never come across this in a motorhome before and it is super handy!

Day 5: Cameron Flat to Lake Tekapo 

We didn’t end up getting going on this day until after lunch, and after so many early starts and late nights in a row it felt good to have a relaxed morning where we just enjoyed the changing scenery of the area over several hours.
The drive down Lake Wanaka and Lake Hawea was super scenic but we were on a mission to make it through the Lindis Pass by sunset knowing that snow was forecast overnight. It was so delightful seeing the light play on the hills at this time of day as we stopped in the Pass, and although it wasn’t an amazingly colourful sunset, there is a barren beauty about this place! 
The light fades fast at this time of year so by the time we made it to Twizel it was dark, and although I’d hoped to make it there in time to show Dad the lakes, we had to carry on to Lake Tekapo instead. I was hoping the sky might be clear enough to do some stargazing at the church amongst Tekapo's internationally renowned night skies despite the fact snow was meant to be on the way there too. And even though there was passing cloud, the Milky Way was clearly visible between the clouds and what a beautiful setting it was with the Church of the Good Shepherd in the frame too. I did have to dodge the odd tourist with their torches on but on the whole I was super impressed with the scene, finding that the ambient light in the town made the light a lot more balanced and easy to compose. 
After the clouds rolled in for good, we called it a night and headed out for a restaurant dinner - it was a bit of a decadent treat after a few days of freeze dried dinners and soups in the motorhome.

Day 6: Lake Tekapo to Christchurch

We woke to a dusting of snow on the ground which was enough to need to pour a kettle of water on the windscreen to clear it for driving. It was only a short hop back down to the lake and not long after arriving a TVNZ reporter turned up and asked Dad and me for a comment on the weather though in the end our little clip didn't actually end up being used on the TV later that night. Though the conditions looked pretty average to begin with, after the sun rose a few golden shafts filtered through the silvery snow clouds throwing a lovely light across the lake and the hills dusted with fresh snow.
Although the incredible colours at sunset at Lake Matheson had been my highlight, Dad declared this moment at Lake Tekapo to be his favourite of the trip, and I'll admit the light was just so engaging we could hardly bear to leave. However, we had a plane to catch later that day and a few hundred miles still to drive so reluctantly we headed off with many a backward glance. 
The drive back through the Mackenzie country was stunning with soft light hitting the hills and sprinkling of snow dusted here and there like icing sugar. I could have stopped so many more times if we’d had all the time in the world but instead reality was waiting. There were certainly highs and lows on the trip as you’d expect on any good adventure but the biggest highlight for me was witnessing my dad’s visible joy at being back in the mountains that he loves so much. It gave me such a thrill to be able to share with him some of the incredible moments I often get to experience as a photographer where the scenery and light just steals your breath away. He really was the best kind of travelling companion you could ask for, and I do hope we can go on another adventure again together soon! 
Many thanks to Wilderness Motorhomes for providing us the Cruise 4 motorhome to travel in style on our NZ adventure. All thoughts and experiences are my own. 

To view more images or to purchase prints, please visit Meghan Maloney Photography


  1. Thanks for sharing your journey. Awesome shots of familiar scenery (my hometown region- Coast) and your shared experiences.

  2. Hi Meghan,

    Thank you for sharing your trip! What were the dates you visited?


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