At first glance, New Zealand’s South Island looks like heaven for a road trip: chilling on sandy beaches and glaciers, tramping through rainforests and vineyards, inhaling fresh air and eating even fresher seafood.
But then my kids photo-bomb this idyllic scene.
The soundtrack retunes to squabbling, the freedom of the open road disappears in a puff of mealtimes and toilet breaks, the compass points to a suitcase that needs to be unpacked and repacked every day.
Only a unique combination of military-style preparation and laid-back Kiwi charm could navigate my family along the road to hell.
Still in Singapore: suitcase management
My hatred of packing is topped only by my loathing of unpacking. So I hit Planet Traveller, Muji and Daiso. Now each kid has a separate colour-coded bag for their undies, tops and bottoms: I can find everything quickly, I can pull one thing out of the suitcase without the rest spilling over the floor, and the clothes stay pressed and clean.
I like this system so much, I do it for my own clothes. And my husband’s.
Then I’m unstoppable: I bag up cosmetics, kid cosmetics, a first aid kit, a smaller first aid kit for the car (a second aid kit?), a sun-and-bugs kit, plugs and cables, travel documents, colouring books, pens and pencils. When I run out of special (read: expensive) travel bags, I use Jiffy bags. I would shrink-wrap the kids if I could.
But it worked: order prevailed for two weeks.
Christchurch: unwind to child pace
On the first afternoon we happen upon New Brighton beach, where gulls drop clam shells from a great height to smash them open on the sand. The kids spend hours collecting them to decorate their fort.
That afternoon sets the tone of the trip. We do have early starts and an itinerary, but the impromptu discoveries of New Zealand’s natural treasures create the special moments.
Playing hide and seek in the long grass beside the Christchurch gondola, climbing trees outside Nelson’s cathedral, exploring exposed roots on a washed-away beach on the Otago peninsula… we loaf about at the sunny-day pace that childhood is made of.
Christchurch to Nelson (423km, 6 hours): the first road test
Normally, I can’t drive from Tanglin to Takashimaya without tiny tears and tantrums. How can I defuse the time bomb on the back seat?
As we speed along the coast road to watch whales in Kaikoura, I pull out my secret car weapon: the lucky dip.
Each kid has a “briefcase” – a plastic wallet from Daiso – containing a clipboard to press on and an enticing array of printouts, novelty pens, stickers, easy crafts and other doodads. They select one item per leg of the journey. They are not allowed to touch, hold or inspect the briefcase, which is hidden away to preserve its allure.
Somehow, the wriggly duo are delighted to make garlands from pipe cleaners and stick dots into scrapbooks. I sit back and count long white clouds.
After an emotional climax involving dolphins and cake, the second leg of the drive gets fractious. But, thanks to Pinterest, I have Car Bucks.
In return for minding the car rules – no shrieking, pinching or tedious repetitions of “how much further?” – they receive a green souvenir note. Car Bucks can be redeemed at ice cream stands and gift shops across the South Island (although the shop assistant might look surprised).
With one iPad, one auxiliary cable from Sim Lim Square and one subscription to Spotify, we access a world of culture. When they tire of fairytale audiobooks, we switch over to the “family road trip” playlist. They rock out, while I try to explain the lyrics to “Bohemian Rhapsody”.
Quirky spots for kids…
• Feed the ducks under water at the Observatory on the KJet pier in Queenstown
• The “steepest street in the world” in Dunedin
• “Quake City”: rebuild the city in Lego at Christchurch Earthquake Museum
• Wanaka’s Puzzling World
• Punakaiki, or Pancake Rocks
• Oamaru’s Steampunk HQ Museum
• Any Kiwi-viewing centre where you can watch these charming birds in the dark
Nelson to Franz Josef (459km, 5 hours 40 minutes): meals on wheels
Kids who have been cooped up in cars don’t sit nicely in restaurants. We learn this the hard way (though Usborne’s handbag-size Travel Doodles activity set does help).
Happily, the wild West Coast offers beaches and picnic tables where we combine alfresco dining with steam-burning. But it’s surprisingly undeveloped out here and snacks are running out.
We dive into a Dairy (a Kiwi corner shop or mini-mart) that’s stocked with pies, organic veg and even craft beers. Then we strike gold at a roadside hut selling a true local delicacy: whitebait patties.
Kiwi treats to try…
• Freshest whitebait patties from Curly Tree on the West Coast
• Fish and chips from the many roadside vans on the Northeast Coast
• A treat for the grownups at Boat Shed Café in Nelson
• The daily catch at Fishbone restaurant in Queenstown
• Bluff oysters when they’re in season (March to August)
Queenstown via Otago (350km, 6 hours 20 minutes): wine region
Kids are happy when they can run about being loud. Parents are happy when they can sit down drinking wine.
Because wine-makers understand human happiness, Nelson’s Seifried vineyard provides a playground. Gibbston Valley near Queenstown offers kid-pleasing platters in a delightful garden restaurant. Everyone is happy.
Queenstown: home of bungy jumping
Renowned South Island activities, like tramping and extreme sports, don’t combine well with young children. But we still get our thrills.
For little walkers, the iSite information offices provide maps of short hikes. Meanwhile, many adrenaline rides are open to kids as young as three: we take our five- and four-year-olds on the famous Shotover River KJet, as well as a glacier boat tour and a helicopter. Family versions of rafting, kayaking and fishing are also available.
Dunedin: a date with nature
In summer (November to March), it’s necessary to pre-book activities, as they will turn you away from the nature sanctuary, even if you send your crying son in first to get the sympathy vote.
Or so we discover after driving to the very tip of the Otago peninsula, where we promised them penguins, seals and albatrosses. The penguins, it seems, have a previous engagement (probably with the several-hundred other people pouring off tourist buses).
With disappointment gathering into a storm on the horizon, we retreat to a tiny bay where the kids bump into (literally) a colony of wild fur seals sunning themselves on the rocks. We amuse ourselves with the seals, and then hang around to laugh at other people scaring themselves silly by tripping over the wildlife.
Dunedin to Aoraki Mount Cook (320km, 4 hours 30 minutes)
Our last drive takes in the Victorian theme-town of Oamaru and a surprise hit at the Steampunk HQ Museum. On to Mount Cook, where the kids are determined to lick 500-year-old ice from the Tasman glacier.
That night, rain sets in and the star-gazing guide doesn’t ease my disappointment by saying that Venus is hidden behind the cloud cover.
We set out pre-dawn for the airport, dodging bunnies on the highway past Lake Tekapo. Then the sky clears and a spotlight streams across the still waters. It is Venus, low in the sky and bright as the moon, and we follow her home.
Going for a road trip soon? Pen down this shopping list!
• Planet Traveller: Eagle Creek Pack-It System, S$69 for set of three
• Muji: “Deodorant” foldable packing cases, from $13.90
• Muji: hexagonal pot of mini-pens, $5.90
• Muji: ring-bound note pads, from $1.30
• Kinokuniya: Usborne’s reusable wipe-clean activity cards, such as Travel Doodles and 50 Things to Do on a Journey, $14.50
• Daiso: clipboards, hard plastic wallets, sketch pads, origami paper, stickers, pipe cleaners, extra dry wipe pens, all $2
• Car Bucks free printables, with huge thanks to Trish and her blog, Prepared Not Scared.