This post on the scenic route from Christchurch to Greymouth begins a series of posts on our campervan trip around the New Zealand South Island.
We bought flights to Christchurch, rented a campervan at the airport and set off from Christchurch to Greymouth and down the West Coast.
The Alpine road from Christchurch to Greymouth takes you across the Southern Alps, from the Pacific Coast in the east to the Tasman Sea in the west. The highest point on the itinerary is Arthur’s Pass, 920 m.
This is our rental campervan, a Kea camper. Kea is a New Zealand parrot that we also became familiar with.
The Drive on the Map: Christchurch to Greymouth
The Arthur’s Pass Drive on the map
The map shows you our itinerary across the New Zealand South Island, from the International Airport of Christchurch to Greymouth on the West Coast.
The distance from Christchurch to Greymouth is less than 250 km and the driving time 3 to 4 hours without stops.
But first, what is campervan travel in New Zealand like?
Travelling New Zealand by Campervan
We landed on late afternoon so our first day’s program was to get a campervan, drive to a supermarket and fill the kitchen with fresh local foodstuff and of course some good New Zealand wine. – And then hit the road!
Filling the campervan with foodstuff
Yes, and of course we had to get a New Zealand sim card. We needed it to one of our phones to share it to the rest of our devices.
Luckily Vodaphone had a desk at the airport where everything was well organized. They had a lot of staff meeting incoming visitors and in two minutes we were connected!
Where to Rent a Campervan
Campervan: a popular way of travel in New Zealand
We booked our campervan a long time in advance, right after we had booked the flights.
After examining different campervan hire websites we finally booked on a site that compares different campervan providers. On those sites it’s easy to compare the rates and what they include and what they don’t. It all worked well and we got what we wanted.
Campervan Finder is a rental agency that shows all leading campervan brands and has a very high customer rating. If you are planning to book, it might be worth checking out their website: Campervan hire from Christchurch.
What extras should you take when booking? Every time we have rented a campervan it has been worth the money to take the complete package including everything: insurance, gas, linen, kitchenware and camping table and chairs.
Where to Stay the Nights
New Zealand: campervans in a rainforest holiday park
On a campervan trip you normally stay the nights in holiday parks or on campsites. You need power, light and heating. Maybe you also need a shower and a toilet – if you don’t have them in youv van.
You should check in advance what kind of holiday parks exist where you plan to stay. As no website lists them all you have to search. A helpful address might be is the New Zealand Holiday Parks Association website. It shows holiday parks on a map, so you also know their exact location.
Parks often close their gates in late afternoon so contact them if you plan to arrive after 5 or 6. We never arrived that early so we always contacted them and checked.
The Christchurch to Greymouth drive: Home made breakfast in a campervan
As we noticed that there are very few holiday parks between Christchurch and Greymouth, we were wondering where we to stay the first night.
In Springfield we found a simple camp ground that was a perfect match for us, this one: Kowai Domain Camping in Springfield. And the night after we were already in Greymouth which is a tourist area and has many holiday parks.
Driving from Christchurch to Arthur’s Pass
Into the mountains
So now we are on the road and driving towards the mountains.
As the coastal area around Christchurch gets a lot of rain, the landscape is fertile and green. In the mountains, however, it will be the opposite as everything looks dry and brown, at least towards the end of the summer.
Autumn: an ideal time for a New Zealand road trip
Our trip was in April which is autumn, an ideal time for a South Island road trip. There is much less traffic than during the summer peak (January-February). When there are less travellers you don’t have to plan that much or pre-book your nights to get a site.
As in April there should not be snow on mountain roads, you don’t have the snow problem. Driving was easy and we felt safe on the road at all times.
Green fields on the roadside
Soon the road starts climbing and we will reach the Southern Alps. This is what the road looks like in the New Zealand Alps:
The Christchurch to Greymouth highway: a road good to drive
Before you notice you will reach the first pass, Porters Pass, 945 m. After the pass there comes a lake country, around Lake Lyndon. Then comes the turn-off to Porters Pass Ski Field, the closest ski field to Christchurch.
Christchurch to Greymouth Train Line
Watch out for trains!
The road from Christchurch to Greymouth very much follows the railway line, which means you will have to cross the rail track many times.
In fact, you can also make a Christchurch to Greymouth trip as a day trip on the Tranz Alpine Express Train. For more information check out the Rail New Zealand website.
In addition, there are bus tours – but of course a self-drive trip gives you a lot more freedom. You will be free to stop wherever you like, for instance to walk around this pretty mountain lake:
A blue and green mountain lake
Travelling New Zealand by campervan: stop wherever you like
As I already mentioned we had a Kea camper. Kea is a New Zealand bird, though less well-known than the kiwi. We were wondering if we would see those birds on our New Zealand road trip.
Next stop: Castle Hill Village and rock formations.
Christchurch to Greymouth: Castle Hill
The Christchurch to Greymouth drive: Castle Hill
Castle Hill is a concentration of strange limestone rocks scattered all over the hill. You can climb on the rocks, and walk around and between them.
Sitting on the rocks of Castle Hill
Originally Castle Hill (Kura Tawhiti in the Maori language) was an ancient Maori meeting place so it still has a symbolic meaning to the Maori. Some more photos of the historic Maori place:
Walking between Castle Hill limestone rocks
After Castle Hill we crossed some dry plateaus, until there was the Cave Stream Scenic Reserve: a limestone cave with a stream inside and Maori art on the walls.
Christchurch to Greymouth: driving on the plains from Castle Hill to Arthur’s Pass
The Arctic Lake Pearson and Purple Hill
A purple-coloured hill
Then comes the Lake Pearson basin that has arctic mountain beech forests turning yellow in autumn. The scenery makes me think about Lapland on the opposite side of the world where we come from. We, too, have yellow leaves, but haven’t seen purple mountains in Lapland…
An arctic scenery like this makes a strong contrast to the tropical West Coast rainforests that are only a short drive away from this plains.
Christchurch to Greymouth: Lake Pearson and Purple Hill
The Waimakariri River on the South Island of New Zealand
Many New Zealand rivers have nice names that come from the Maori language. This is the Waimakariri River letting melt water from Arthur’s Pass flow to the Pacific Ocean.
A narrow New Zealand bridge
This is what most New Zealand bridges look like: old, worn and incredibly narrow. It looks scary in the beginning, but before you notice you will get used to driving on New Zealand bridges.
Getting closer to Arthur’s Pass: crossing the Waimakariri River
Christchurch to Greymouth: Arthur’s Pass
Driving from Christchurch to Greymouth: Arthur’s Pass National Park
In Arthur’s Pass you are almost on the top of New Zealand. The pass divides South Island in two, the very rainy east and the less rainy west.
The pass is surrounded by a national park that has sixteen peaks exceeding 2000 m. Arthur’s Pass itself is at the altitude of 920 m.
Forest view from the top of New Zealand
Arthur’s Pass National Park consists of forested mountain landscape and short and long walking tracks, of which we tried the Devil’s Punchbowl Falls hike.
Devil’s Punchbowl is a very short hike, about an hour uphill from the village through a mountain beech forest.
Devil’s Punchbowl Falls, Arthur’s Pass
The Punchbowl waterfall is 131 m high. You can see the top of it in my photo captured from the main road.
Some more photos of the Devil’s Punchbowl Falls track:
New Zealand mountain nature
Arthur’s Pass has a small village centre located 5 km east of the summit. The village originally was a base for road and tunnel workers that had to stay here for years when the road and rail from Christchuch to Greymouth were built.
Drive from Christchurch to Greymouth: Arthur’s Pass
As the workers needed something to live in they built huts for themselves. Today the Arthur’s Pass village is a base for walkers and skiers where some original tunneller’s cottages still remain:
One of the original tunneller’s cottages in Arthur’s Pass Village
Arthur’s Pass is home to made kinds of alpine plants, and home to some native New Zealand birds like kiwi and kea:
Arthur’s Pass, a kiwi zone
Kea Birds on our Kea Campervan
Christchurch to Greymouth by campervan: a Kea bird attacks our vehicle
After the top of Arthur’s Pass the road turns steeply down, descending rapidly to the West Coast. As we did not excepct going down already, we pulled to the roadside for some more mountain views. To notice that there was something on our roof:
Kea eating rubber from our campervan
In less than a minute two or three Keas arrived and started pecking rubber parts from our vehicle roof and, even worse, around windscreens.
In a few minutes they would have destroyed our campervan so we had to leave. They stayed on the roof and was no way getting rid of them other than driving away with speed. After some driving we stopped and checked if they were still there, but they had gone.
So now we had seen New Zealand Keas and hope not to see them any more.
Road from Arthur’s Pass to Greymouth
Arthur’s Pass to Greymouth
Crossing a river
In a short time we were down and almost on the West Coast. This side of the island, too, seems to have long bridges, most of which are like this:
New Zealand by campervan: another narrow bridge
On the west side of the Southern Alps the road follows the Taramakau River:
On the road from Christchurch to Greymouth
Taramakau River stone blocks have red stuff growing on them. It’s a kind of moss that comes in other strong colours as well.
Roadside stones with a red layer
As we are approaching the wet west that is in the rainforest zone, the weather gets wet and cloudy. Then, before we noticed we were in Greymouth.
Christchurch to Greymouth: a scary bridge
In Greymouth we saw one of the scariest bridges we had to drive on in New Zealand, a combined train and car traffic bridge.
Next Destination: The West Coast
The mirror-like Lake Matheson on the South Island West Coast
Our journey will continue in the next post. The post is about our drive down the South Island West Coast. We will look at the attractions and nature wonders of the West Coast, from where the journey will continue inland, to Mount Aspiring National Park and the Central Lakes.
More on New Zealand Travel
This was section number 1 of our New Zealand South Island road trip. You will find our whole South Island itinerary and its all other sections here:
Travelling New Zealand South Island by campervan