New Zealand Road Trip – South Island
New Zealand was the trip that changed our lives, beyond all recognition. Although on the face of it, it was a celebratory Bucket List holiday for our Anniversary, it ended up being so much more. Read why it changed our lives here.
Six weeks to explore New Zealand’s two islands – would it be enough, would we get to see all our highlights without getting too exhausted? Well we were about to find out as our adventures began at Christchurch on South Island. We had chosen to hire a motorhome to cover our entire trip and so with our trusty steed, Baz a Swift Bolero from Iconic Motorhomes we set out like intrepid explorers. Armed with a dash of adventure, a pinch of excitement and a whole basket full of joy we drove off for some fun. What would this ‘clean, green’ adventure playground offer us?
Here are our 11 Highlights as we tripped the light fantastic around the most iconically beautiful islands in the world. A bold statement perhaps. Yet The Land the of Long White Cloud presents the most incredible scenery, activities and memories, which is why tourism accounts for around 6% of their GDP.
Check out our Interactive Map below for a comprehensive route plan, POI and overnight stops along the way with co-ordinates.
Our virgin journey from Christchurch was nerve wracking as we familiarised ourselves with the speed, size, width and general noise that a van makes when you’re hurtling down the highways. Although given our past experience with motorhomes, it didn’t take long to find our groove. Our first stop for a couple of nights to ground ourselves was Akaroa.
1. Akaroa Peninsular
Our first stop was in a volcano crater, created thousands of years ago. A mere 50 miles south east from Christchurch, this was an incredible initiation to the New Zealand landscape. The town named after the Maori for ‘Long Harbour’ was claimed by the French who arrived on the shores of Banks Peninsular, only to find that the English had beaten them to it. Still, the town today is very much French influenced with road names, shops and architecture all in style Français.
I had hoped that one of my ultimate bucket list activities might well be achieved on day 2 of our trip; alas the weather prevented us taking a boat out into the harbour for me to swim with the Hector Dolphins – the rarest and smallest dolphins in the world. Sad that it didn’t happen, although it was just not meant to be.
Still having Akaroa as our first destination was lovely and with undulating hills, bays, azure blue waters, this was a great insight and preparation for what was to come. If this was impressive, what would the rest of South Island share with us? We stayed at Akaroa Top 10 Camping for two nights.
2. Lake Tekapo
From Akaroa we headed west towards the beating heart of this stunning landscape where the mountains are king and the visitor simply minions, reverent to their magnificence. The scenery was incredible and I can’t find enough superlatives to describe what our eyes captured. The topography undulates with mesmerising curvaceousness.
Lake Tepako was our first stop with the Church of the Good Shepherd, an iconic symbol of the lake and surrounding hills – if hills is not too much of an insult. Had it not been for all the tourists it would have been a magical place – oh we were one of those tourists. Our overnight stop was in an amazing site over-looking the crystal blue waters with clouds kissing the mountain tops. Pines lined the shores completing a canvas of rainbow colours.
3. Mount Cook/Aoraki and Hooker Valley
If you were to list the top three photos that summarise New Zealand, then the shot looking across Lake Pukaki to the towering giant of Mount Cook would be up there. On a clear day, then that snow peaked baby, which is the highest mountain in New Zealand, will fill your lens with magnitude and grace. They say you can tell the forecast at the Park by the amount of cloud covering the mountain. If you can’s see it, then the weather is bad. So it might help make your decision about the journey to the Park.
If the weather gods are shining, then taking Route 80 transports you into the spiritual land of the Mount Cook National Park, where the famous Hooker Pass hike, glaciers and icebergs await you. We camped on a DOC site, which had very few facilitates and is naturally wild, although fabulous in its rawness. This is nature at its best and we were camping right in the centre of it.
The Hooker Valley walk was a delight for our eyes and ears as we ventured into the heart of the mountain wilderness. The wind called us, or so we thought and yet as we turned the corner, there in front of us was the raging torrent of snow-melt run off, coursing over boulders and through gorges. Our path took us over the tumbling waters by way of a suspension bridge and on deeper into the valley almost nose to nose with the Mount Cook Glaciers. Living, breathing, moving feats of Mother Nature’s subtle power.
4. Clay Cliffs of Omarama
After some research, I found a spot that appealed to our introvert personalities. En route to Queenstown from Mount Cook, we visited an ‘off-the-beaten-track’ location that took our fancy. Few tourists come to New Zealand’s Clay Cliff’s of Omarama, partly because of the road quality and partly because Queenstown is the more obvious draw with visitors’ tight schedules.
We braved the road, which was a good three miles of dirt track with pot holes, although wow, it was worth it. Imagine a Country and Western movie and you have this unique geological gem. Thousands of years old, these gravel and silt peak and cavity formations have been created by glaciers. They are so different to anything else you will see in New Zealand and for that reason alone, worth visiting. For a $5 donation at the road’s entrance, you can experience this incredible place, its silence and natural history.
5. Queenstown Area
The views heading south west continued to inspire us and every spot the scenery changed. Mountains morphed from curvaceous and voluptuous undulations, tropical rainforest covered valleys, towering, craggy giants to then flat plains covered in fields of sheep, cows and red deer. Each view spectacular in its own right and well deserving of the respect they command.
Then we reached Queenstown. This is New Zealand’s adventure playground Mecca and a centre-piece for so many visitors, although it wasn’t for us and the weather had a part to play in this. Couped up in a car-park style Top 10 Campsite we felt claustrophobic and the beauty we expected from New Zealand temporarily hidden from sight. There were a couple of nice spots in the surrounding area; The Golf Club at Kelvin Heights was amazing, Arrowtown was charming and the infamous Bungee Jumping site at Karawau Gorge was definitely worth watching for an hour. Although apart from this, we were glad to leave Queenstown and was the least memorable part of our trip. For many though, the draw of the adrenalin activities would make this an unmissable focal point for their holiday.
6. Fiordland; Doubtful and Milford
I had imagined that with our visit to New Zealand in their mid summer season, that our weather would at least be better than back ‘home’. Although we were sorely disappointed, so do be prepared on South Island for the weather to change rapidly and to get really cold up in the mountains. Whilst cold fronts are typically unheard of, it does happen, just like any other weather anomaly – so come prepared.
Unfortunately these weather fronts do affect the full experience of the Fiordland region. Clear weather really does favour this natural architectural beauty, shaped by millions of years of glacial activity. Still, we decided that we weren’t going to come back to this part of the world, so to not visit both Fiords seemed a travesty. Depending upon the time you have on your itinerary you may have to toss a coin and chose one or another. So perhaps my descriptions below may help you choose.
There are only two days in my life where I have been as excited as our trip to Doubtful Sound just south of Te Anau; Disneyland when I was 13 and my Wedding Day. I really don’t think I can adequately describe our experiences, which involved a ferry, a coach and then our three hour exclusive cruise on the most stunning fiord. How do I describe it and give you a sense of our experiences?
Imagine a stream and enlarge and lengthen it by a million. Imagine the colour blue and intensify it by 100. Imagine a hill and stretch it by 5000 and colour it with a few cotton wool buds tickling the tops of the mountains for good measure. Oh and add dolphins, penguins and seals. The final thing needed to your imagery is the sound…. Imagine only the sound of lapping waves on the catamaran’s hull, the eery vibration of a mountain’s towering presence, the cry of a seagull and the crashing of the waterfalls full of the recent snowfall melt. If you add a shake of magic and dash of rainbow colours and a sense of Christmas Eve excitement, you can share just some of our experience. At one point the captain turned off the engines so we could listen to Mother Nature’s orchestra and I have to say that the serenity made me cry with joy. On top of that I had dolphins swimming right alongside the boat, which just topped it all off. This is one of my New Zealand highlights.
There’s no doubt for me that Doubtful (pardoning the pun) will hold a special place in my heart and yet travelling the route to Milford Sound, added even more colour to our travel log. The road itself was interesting with lakes that look like mirrors reflecting the mountain backdrop and tunnels that carry you through the most stalwart, granite mountain monsters and hairpin bends that rival the Swiss Alps. And then there was the Sound itself – we decided on a small boat cruise that had only eight passengers, making it quite an intimate affair. It was just like the brochures show; iconic, dramatic and so totally different to its southern sister. Sheer mountain faces, characterful shapes that enticed your imagination, caves, seductive clouds skimming the giants’ heads and waterfalls that gushed out of what seemed like thin air.
As I reflect on the two sensational experiences, I realise that each held a completely different energy within them. Doubtful was feminine – gentle, embracing, alluring, curvaceous, nurturing, satisfying and unforgettable. Milford was more masculine – tall, strong, powerful, dominant, a little jagged and over too quickly, leaving you wanting more. I’m so glad we did both Fiords as they were both special in their own ways and both taking just a little bit of space in our hearts.
Gallery of images – click below to see our Fiordland images.
Westlands and New Zealand’s Southern Alps
Our destination en route north was WanAka – I purposely put a middle capital A, as a number of our ’speed reading’ Facebook friends missed out this crucial letter and gave this beautiful town a rather sorry nickname. The non-tourist road to Wanaka was simply stunning. There were more twists and turns in it than in a Jive. Good old Baz, the motorhome managed admirably and our prize was the oasis town of Wanaka, which, no surprise was held in the clutch of yet more magnificent mountains and with its own beautiful, azure lake.
With plentiful hiking and cycling around Wanaka’s peninsular you will get to experience yet more non-touristy South Island. You will find deserted beaches, forest paths and riverside-hugging biking tracks. Add to this the abundant smell of the authentic Tea Tree bush making a visit here for a couple of days feel like a healing zone.
8. Haast Pass
Westlands, is all about the most famous glaciers and mountain passes. I must say that we navigated more hairpins than an Elizabethan monarch’s hairdo – blimey it certainly tested my driving skills. Every bend was a wow, an OMG or some similar expletive. There were gorges with topaz blue waters thundering through them, carving out their presence on the granite rocks below. Snow-capped mountains towered above us, coming in all shapes and sizes. Rainforest, still ruling the roost with 20ft ferns dominating the skyline and roads lined with brilliant orange Star Gazing lilies and crocosmia. In fact I don’t know about 50 Shades of Grey, I think we saw 50 shades of the Rainbow.
Now I mention our next overnight camp, Lake Paringa, partly because it was beautiful, right beside the water’s edge, although more for the pest warfare that began that day. People consistently mention the Battle of the Sandfly in New Zealand, particularly on the West Coast and we took heed of their warnings and duly purchased a spray to ward off the little blighters.
The sandfly makes the mosquito look like a cuddly teddy bear, and those Scottish friends amongst you who know the pleasures of the Blue Cross mozzies, I’m sorry to say that they are child’s play compared to New Zealand’s sandflies. They look so innocuous as they land on your spray coated skin and believe me they will find access to any piece of flesh they can, especially if it is unprotected. At the time their bites seem innocent, yet it is a day or two later when the chickenpox itching starts and they swell up your ankles and you look like a teenager with acne within 24 hours. It’s bad man so beware.
9. The Glaciers; Fox and Franz Joseph
At the planning phase of our trip, Fox and Franz Joseph glaciers weren’t on our list. Given that we had seen the Tasman Glacier at Mount Cook, both of us felt like we had ‘done’ glaciers. Well that was until we saw the Helicopter Flights that landed right on the top of these magnificent giants. Despite the cost, ($270 equating to around £137 per person), I had a sudden wave of Carpe Diem and before we knew it, we have reserved a place on the tour that included a snow landing which was key for me. To quote the Carpenter’s song I really wanted to be: ‘…On top of the world, looking, down on creation…’ I wanted the rawness of the height, the space, the silence; Mother Nature in her most natural and organic state and to be at one with it.
We were lucky enough to have our flight upgraded and without any additional cost we were blessed with a trip up Franz Joseph, flying around Mount Cook, a snow landing and down Fox Glacier for 40 minutes. To cut a long story short, the trip was sensational with such a perfect weather day for it. So many people don’t get to do this because the conditions are too bad. It totally met and exceed my expectations.
As you head north towards Abel Tasman, there is the opportunity to have a short stopover at Hokitika. It is renowned for its driftwood and each year there is a competition down on the beach, which is definitely worth viewing. Hokitika itself is like a Wild West town although is quite charming.
11. Abel Tasman National Park
The northern coast of New Zealand’s South Island is paradise supreme. This National Park was first colonised by Dutchman Abel back in the 1600s, who is credited for being the first European to land on New Zealand shores, 100 years before James Cook.
Abel Tasman is the most incredible coastal vision I have set my eyes on and being a sea baby, I feasted on its lusciousness and allowed it to feed my soul. Golden sands sparkle like gold bullion. Dense forest canopies keep the sunshine at bay. And the exotic blue seas come right out of the Caribbean movies. We just needed Hale Berry to emerge out of the sea to recreate that famous James Bond scene. There is a real rawness about these shores that just brings out artists and nature lovers.
Limestone and granite mountains plunge straight into the crystal coves and beautiful bays create a safe haven for a host of flora and fauna so unique to this area. The peaceful inlets provide shelter to the abundance of crayfish, green lipped mussels, clams and blue cod, most of which are sent to the Asian market. What a treasure chest of delights that is Abel Tasman.
For the energetic and physically driven, the AT heralds the famous tramping track that can take from between three to five days. Pathways hug the coast, taking inward turns into the heart of the forest. Then there are teasing peaks of the tumbling cliffs below, revealing brilliant blue seas that invite you to dive right in. Water taxis buzz like bees up and down the coast dropping off trampers as they negotiate sections of the park to suit their abilities. Campsites and watering holes are sporadically located along the way for the more serious walkers to stay overnight.
The sound of the cicadas sing like an electric fence without a break in their circuit. Conducting their harmony was the odd Tui and Bellbird, which sound a bit like R2D2. The musical orchestra was heaven for the ears. For the eyes, a feast of coastal rainforest, granite outcrops holding precariously poised pine trees and romantic beaches that just invited a naked swim! For the soul, well just being in this special place was enough to fill any heart full of joy, beholding the vistas that just melt you.
This National Park is an absolute must if you love nature, coastline, hiking and water.
11. Queen Charlotte Drive – en route to Picton
Our final South Island destination before our northern leg was Marlborough Sound and the Queen Charlotte Drive. It is famous for its wineries although we were heading for its watery surprises. This sea flooded wilderness was littered with little inlets and islands and yet reminded me so much of Doubtful Sound. It was strewn with voluptuous mountains and curvaceous coves, sheltering tiny isles with inhabitants looking for seclusion, their only links to land by boat. Yet again, off the beaten track we found ourselves an amazing free campsite – Double Bay Reserve that we shared with only four other vans and our own private beach.
Arriving in Picton we treated ourselves to a cruise up Queen Charlotte Sound and this was no ordinary tourist cruise. It was a working boat. During our 3 hour trip, there were eight drop offs that allowed the disembarkation of both human cargo, trampers for the famous Queen Charlotte Track and, more surprisingly freight. There were suitcases for remote lodges in secluded cove, boxes of beer and wine supplies and the odd 58” Widescreen TV! It was great to be part of this working cruise and see how life in the Sound is sustained and nourished.
From Picton, you are at the point of no return when it comes to South Island. After the highs of the Fiords, The Alps and the mountainous National Parks, the remaining task is to take the ferry over to Wellington. And from this point, your North Island adventures can begin.
Our closing thoughts on South Island
New Zealand’s South Island is truly beautiful and so much more than our 11 Highlights. It is a place where someone or something has created the most incredible natural tapestry for us to enjoy. Raw, untouched and precious. A land that needs to be treasured and honoured for all its splendour. What would North Island offer, if this is what South Island is all about? Tune into our northern highlights here.
Save for later? Why not Pin it?
Other posts that might interest you…