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A Classic New Zealand Road Trip: Driving to Mount Cook National Park

A Classic New Zealand Road Trip: Driving to Mount Cook National Park

Cars represent freedom in New Zealand. When you’re a teenager they open up a whole new world of parties and lunchtime drives to KFC. When you’re 32 they are vessels in which to explore the country — hubcap thieving gravel roads, overrun tourist sites, deserted beaches, iconic mountains and all. The most I’d spent previously on a car was $500. It’s nice to now have things like electric windows, the little remote lock thing and a CD player (none of that USB/ Bluetooth nonsense though, we aren’t made of money).

New Zealand Road trip preparation 101

We shoved a queen size air mattress in the back of our car, greatly overestimating how big the back of our car is. The mattress kind of goes up on the sides and the doors and boot are often hard to close, but we finally had our ticket to New Zealand. Van life for people who couldn’t afford a van.

We packed enough food for the weekend, including hummus, olives, sun-dried tomatoes, crackers, bread, cheese, boiled eggs, bacon and a plastic container full of nuts. That’s a pretty classy list of food items — we aren’t pretentious I swear, but I can’t blame you for thinking that. We also had Nutella and a packet of Tim Tams, so hopefully that balances things out.

The CD player I mentioned earlier is obviously primitive technology, and we had no discs to play in it.  We tried to connect our Blueteeth (or is it Bluetooths?) to it but it just wasn’t working. In the end we had to pay a quick visit to a friend the night before we left to burn some CDs. We weren’t even doing it ironically. I can confirm that CD players do in fact still exist, and they can actually sound pretty good.

On the Road

We left along the undulating country roads leading north from Dunedin, the kind of roads that chew through your hard earned premium petrol.

After an hour we reached the Moeraki Boulders. Koekohe Beach would be fairly nondescript if not for the dozen or so spherical chunks of rock lying in its sand. We sat on the side of a boulder and ate lunch while clouds concealed the blue sky we had driven under all the way from Dunedin.

Stopping by Moeraki Boulders on the way from Dunedin to Mount Cook, New Zealand

The road beckoned, and on we pushed on through Oamaru, the steampunk capital of New Zealand. We soon ditched the traffic and veered inland towards Mount Cook, passing by several lakes and dams as well as the sleepy towns of Duntroon, Otematata, Kurow, Omarama and Twizel. All the while foothills slowly grew into sharp peaks. We were close to Mount Cook.

Driving to Mount Cook National Park, New Zealand

Soon after Twizel we turned onto Mount Cook Road, which skirts Lake Pukaki. The water of Lake Pukaki takes on a blue Powerade hue when the sun is shining. Unfortunately we were still driving under clouds. We stopped off at a couple of viewpoints but then realised we’d need to get a move on if we wanted to hike the Hooker Valley Track before nightfall.

Hiking in Mount Cook National Park

Shadows were already descending on the peaks around us when we started the Hooker Valley hike. We went into overdrive for the next 45 minutes as we tried to catch the last rays of sun on Mount Cook.

And there it was, the beaming overlord of a dark land. Of course it was still light — the top of Mount Cook is New Zealand’s highest point after all. We made it to the end of the track, ate some of our exotic nuts (almonds and walnuts) and enjoyed our alone time with Mount Cook.

FURTHER READING: Hiking the Hooker Valley Track, Mount Cook National Park (this post, and the ones below, are on my new South Island focused blog)

The Hooker Valley hike, Mount Cook National Park, New ZealandA road trip to Mount Cook National Park, New Zealand

We made it back to the car park / camping ground while we could still see and proceeded to set up our bed for the night. It was the best night’s sleep I’d had in weeks. The next day we explored some more of Mount Cook National Park. We saw car eating kea hanging out in the Hooker Valley car park, hiked to another Mount Cook viewpoint, walked around the Blue Lakes (which are no longer blue) and looked out over Tasman Lake and the shrinking glacier which feeds it.

FURTHER READING: Hiking the Kea Point Track, Mount Cook National Park

A kea in Mount Cook National Park, New ZealandHiking Mount Cook National Park, New Zealand

We then headed to Tekapo to see the Church of the Good Shephard, one of the most photographed churches in New Zealand. It’s also one of the most overrated. I’ve seen some cool photos of it but they are almost always by professional photographers and are generally taken at sunrise or sunset. There’s not much going on in the cold light of day and it was really crowded. There’s also a dog statue nearby — I’m not really sure why.

We stayed the night at a freedom camping spot near Twizel called Lake Poaka. It was the only option for miles that didn’t require vehicles to be self-contained. I’ve heard so much negatively about freedom campers in the media lately but I don’t see the problem as long as the facilities are up to standard.

FURTHER READING: Freedom Camping Near Mount Cook: Lake Poaka

Freedom camping near Mount Cook National Park, New Zealand

And that’s pretty much it. We returned home early the next morning as it was cloudy and we wanted to get home and relax before another busy week of work (for Gia, not me. Working on these blogs is pretty much my job these days and it definitely isn’t hard). Our first New Zealand road trip was a success — there will be many more to come.

Have you road tripped around New Zealand? Where was your favourite place? Let me know in the comments below!

You may have noticed I have started a new blog focusing on New Zealand’s South Island. I’ll be writing all about our trips in far more detail over there, so check it out if you’re planning a visit to New Zealand.

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Jon Algie

A travel blogger from New Zealand who hates talking about himself in the third person and has no imagination when it comes to naming websites.


Monday 21st of May 2018

Hi! We are traveling to New Zealand this week, and had planned on doing the Hooker Valley Track on May 28th. I see where there are avalanche warning for that area. Would we be better off staying an extra day in Wanaka and doing the Roy's Peak in addition to the Rob Roy glacier track or should we press on to Mt Cook? I don't want to get there only to be told we can't hike the Hooker Valley track.

Jon Algie

Tuesday 22nd of May 2018

Hi Kelly, I guess if there is a risk of it being closed you're better to stay around Wanaka -- Roys Peak is an awesome hike so I'm sure you won't regret doing it!

alex hayman

Saturday 29th of April 2017

Aoetearoa is a beautiful country!

I studied there in 2015. I visited Aoraki with some friends, but it was cloudy that day. Now I'm back in California. I agree that the church is overrated.

You mentioned that writing this blog is your job. Congratulations! About how much on average does it generate per month? I'd like to start one.


Jon Algie

Monday 1st of May 2017

Well, a very low paying job haha. At this point I could earn enough to survive somewhere like India or Thailand but my partner has a pretty good job so money isn't too much of an issue at the moment. That has meant I can get started on a couple of other projects and travel as much as I can around New Zealand. Definitely putting more work in for future gains rather than hustling for freelance work etc -- not all bloggers have that luxury though!