Living in a Rooftop Tent in New Zealand: Oamaru to Akaroa

It’s official we live in a rooftop tent/Subaru in New Zealand. We originally planned on Airbnb hopping but decided we wanted more freedom and spontaneity. Oli often talks about his time living aboard his brother’s boat in Indonesia and how he would like to re-create how he felt on that trip. In the spirit of adventure, we changed course and are allowed to follow every road to the end, just to see what is there. We have big milestones marked and 4 months to see the whole South Island of New Zealand, which means we have plenty of time to explore every nook and cranny.

We departed Queenstown with a sendoff breakfast and mimosa toast with a couple friends and headed straight for Oamaru and warmer weather. After switching hemispheres and enduring a long winter, I have been very ready for the change of the seasons. Though it is very much spring and nighttime temps can drop below 0, so far our days have been lovely warm.

Oamaru was a pleasant surprise full of wildlife. We headed straight for the blue penguin colony and booked our up-close encounter. We had a couple hours to kill, as they only return back to their nests after sunset. At the recommendation of the guide, we headed to Bushy Beach Reserve. We had to earn our next run-ins as Bushy Beach was up a massive hill, and since it is New Zealand we had to climb the hill both directions.

Bushy Beach was a very fruitful 45-minute stop. Right away, and with the help of the park volunteer, we spotted a pod of Hector’s Dolphins. They are the world’s smallest dolphin and we were quite far away, but I did manage to snap two photos with a dolphin fin and tail and they almost make one whole dolphin.

We were really there to spot to the rare yellow-eyed penguin. We had a small window and had accepted we most likely wouldn’t see one and just enjoyed the view and other sea birds. The yellow-eyed penguins are very shy and won’t come on the beach if anyone is there, so park volunteer’s close beach access an hour and a half before the penguins usually return, but there are a few viewing platforms on the quarry cliff that peers over Bushy Beach. That view alone was worth the climb on our bikes.

Happily snapping photos of Oli, we almost missed the single yellow-eyed penguin to return. Luckily, I spotted him just in time and was able to snag a photo of his mate coming out to greet him back home. Giddy about seeing my first wild penguin and that our evening was sure to have more, we mounted our bikes as the sun began to set and set off on our second climb in an hour back to the Blue Penguin Colony.

The ride back was much faster than anticipated, but that did mean that we had the opportunity to say hi to a fat fellow lounging on the docks, check out the shags lined on the dock, and get a front-row spot for the return of the penguins.

With a purple sky and dropping temps, the moment we came for was nearing. You can hear them squawking before you can see the raft return. Silently, they poked their heads up just over the horizon of the small hill. A large raft (or group) had returned from their fishing trip and cautiously crossed the final stretch to the safety of the sanctuary.

Waddling, flipper flapping, falling down, and basically being the cutest thing I have ever seen, they made their way to the bridge where they cool down and preen themselves. They were only a foot away from us, and over 145 of them returned at once. The sanctuary guide said in his time there he had never seen such a large raft return at once. I was feeling like lady luck was really on our side this night.

We got to witness fluffy gray chicks being fed, hear the happy calls from inside their burrows, and watch the world’s smallest penguin in its natural habitat. After most of the penguins returned, we decided it was time to head home but the fun wasn’t over yet. Weaving through the trees and nesting ground is a raised wooden footpath that offers a once in a lifetime, up-close encounters. It was incredible to see them so close and witness chicks coming out of the nests excited for dinner. After studying penguins for a year at my last job as an expedition specialist, this was a really special moment for me and I was all smiles despite the fact that I didn’t bring a coat, it was freezing, and we had a 13-minute bike ride back to the campsite.

At the sanctuary they use amber light that the penguins cannot see, and any photography or videography is forbidden due to that fact that the flash or light can disrupt their routines. Luckily, there are penguins all along the coast and on our bike ride back we damn near ran over a few that were crossing the bike path. I snapped a couple photos with the flash off, but since we had headlamps on I did so quickly and then we got out of their way. We slowed our speed to watch out for more, and then once in town pedaled as fast as we could to the warmth of our new home.

Day 2 had us exploring the interactive Steampunk HQ, cheese tasting at Whitestone Cheese Co, and heading further North without any solid plans. After a little research we found a unique food opportunity and headed for The Barn in Waimate to have a taste of their Wallaby burger and pie. Stacked with beet root, plum sauce, and aoli the burger was a great success and we found out that the South Canterbury Outstanding Food Festival (Scoff) started the day we arrived. Lady luck on our side again.

After a couple hours of working and stealing the café’s Wifi we headed an hour north to the Peel Forest Campground. Upon arrival we realized it wasn’t open yet and set off down the road labeled Eco-Lodge to see if we could ask them if we could park in a field. Well we found a field but never found the eco-lodge. Again, luck was with us and the camping field was open only for the next two days and we had the place to ourselves. A campfire, dinner, two Facetime catch ups with friends and family later it was time to settle in for our second night. Negative nighttime temps gave way to a sunny warm morning full of coffee, blogging, and a happy heart. After a quick hike to a waterfall we got on the road to Akaroa.

Finally we reached 22 degrees and beach front campsites, after a warm afternoon a windstorm swept in and didn’t let up for 24 hours and is looking to get worse. We hunkered away in the tent with some wine and a movie and woke up to blue skies.

No one said living in a tent would be easy – so far we have had one solid night of sleep and two nights interrupted with freezing cold temps and wind speeds up to 65km/hour, but my heart is so happy and I wouldn’t change a thing! Looks like 85 km/hour winds are in our future but so is swimming with dolphins this Saturday. ❤


Wilderwomen was born out of two women with the same dream; build a community of women who empower one another outdoors. Whether you’re seeking yoga, a get away, a tribe, an outdoor adventure, or just some time in nature, Wilderwomen has it all. We host meet-ups and outdoor retreats in the picturesque PNW paradise that include daily yoga, gourmet meals, outdoor adventures, hot spring soaks, glamping and more! We are building a community of women (and men, and partners, and those who don’t opt to define themselves by a gender) who feel confident in their skin and in their technical outdoor abilities, a tribe of humans who deeply care about the environment and each other, and a collection of outdoor enthusiasts and weekend warriors who are excited to get after it in the outdoors.

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