South Island ROAD TRIP GUIDE
What better way to start off my blog than with a South Island Road Trip Guide, yarning about one of my absolute favourite corners of the world, the South Island of my motherland of New Zealand. I recently spent just over two weeks, 16 days to be exact, road tripping around some of the hottest little spots (gigantic rather) in the South.
It’s impossible to cover everything in a short amount of time, but hopefully this post will give you a little insight into a bloody good way to spend two weeks here. From the rugged west coast, ridiculous waterfalls, frosted tipped mountains, surges of adrenaline, the goodness of the fiords, outrageous National Parks, insane wildlife, and to top it off, some of the best hikes in all the land. Without being biased, New Zealand is honestly one of the most stunning countries in the world and even after hearing everyone harp on about how clean, green and beautiful it is, I didn’t realise how true that was until I travelled overseas and came back. If you’re planning on travelling here, or like myself, exploring more of your own backyard, then you are in for an absolute treat with everything New Zealand has to offer!
This may be a bit of a novel, so grab a cuppa.
Here is a two week itinerary of the route I took and the places I stayed, bursting with my best tips and recommendations. Obviously, if you are coming from a different city, are already in the South, or choose a different mode of transport, then plan accordingly. This is just a rough outline to give you some ideas! I had no real plans of where exactly I was going and how long I was staying in each place, and in my opinion winging it is the best way to go. You may discover a place you want to explore further, or find you like somewhere else a lot more than you originally thought.
I began in Ohakune. Waking up just before 3am after what seemed like a 5 minute nap, unaware what year I was in, ready to hit the road. I had chucked all my shit in the car the night before and made a note reminding my five year old self not to forget my toothbrush- managed to get that, then made myself a cuppa tea to hopefully make me feel more alive. I jumped in my car and drove three hours from Ohakune to Wellington, in time to board the car ferry at 8am to Picton– the ferry trip taking 3.5 hours. Tip- There are two ferry companies you can catch over the Cook Strait- Interislander and Bluebridge. I went with Bluebridge as it was slightly cheaper. The prices of the ferries don’t seem to change so whether you buy it a month in advance or an hour before, it won’t make much difference. Always try and find yourself a cheeky 10% off code- have a look on Google and a few should pop up. I paid $158 each way.
I then continued my South Island road trip to the following places-
PICTON – HOKITIKA
This was my first real leg of the trip, travelling on SH6 which I took as soon as I got off the ferry at midday. Obviously if you are feeling sleepy, make sure you stop when you need to. New Zealand roads can be pretty damn windy!
My first proper stop was at Lake Rotoiti in Nelson Lakes National Park. The closest town being St Arnaud, a 1.5 hour easy drive from Picton. A picturesque mountain face sits above the stunning blue lake of Rotoiti. I saw some cute as ducklings, swans, a shit tonne of eels, and a bus load of tourists trying to capture the token shot jumping off the jetty. A perfect spot to take a picnic and stretch your legs on one of the walks they have close by. I done the Bellbird Walk that lead to the Honeydew Walk which was only about half an hour. Tip- My favourite site for information on walks is the DOC website. Check it out to find out how long each walk takes and which ones are in your area. Freewalks is another good one! Tip- Fill up your vehicle with petrol in the larger towns. If you get caught having to stop at a random petrol station in the middle of no where, you’ll be paying crazy amounts more. I remember seeing the ridiculous prices around this area and being stoked I filled up earlier.
Once I carried on driving along side the Buller River and onto the wild West Coast, I was greeted by ridiculously beautiful and rugged beaches. Punakaiki Pancake and Blowhole Rocks, a 2 hour 50 minute drive from Lake Rotoiti, was a must stop for me. At Dolomite Point just south of the main village, are the pancake and blowhole rocks. A popular spot to take the short walk wandering around the eroded limestone cliffs. The sea bursts through blowholes during high tides and the stacks of rocks look just like pancakes do on a Sunday morning, all I needed was some maple syrup!
After passing through Greymouth, I arrived at Hokitika just in time for sunset. The classic Hokitika Sign made out of driftwood on the beach front is pretty sweet!
Once the sun had gone down, it was about that time to stop for the night. Tip- Before leaving for my South Island road trip I downloaded the Rankers Camping NZ app on my phone. There is an option to download the offline maps which was a lifesaver when it came to finding a place to crash for the night, especially if you’ re out of reception- which a big chunk of the trip, I was. You can view every non self-contained (me) and self-contained DOC campsite (ranging from mainly $8-$15 depending on amenities, which is paid into an honesty box) or free campsites that are around. Take note that if you’re staying in the peak times they may be choc-a-block, so try and set up camp as early as possible to secure a spot. As I was traveling solo I felt safer staying at a proper campsite as I knew there would usually be other campers or rangers around, it also saved me from getting a possible $200 fine for freedom camping illegally. I chose a campsite just south of Hokitika at Lake Mahinapua.
And yes, I managed to do all of this within the first day from Picton!
FOX GLACIER, FRANZ JOSEF AND HAAST PASS – WANAKA
Once I woke I got back on the road and carried on towards Franz Josef and Fox Glacier. Here I planned to do the glacier walks but unfortunately was hit with crazy flooding and torrential rain, which made that plan go down the drain. Some of the roads and bridges were even wiped out, such a bummer. I ended up spending less time here than I thought I might (which proves my point of not planning too far ahead), and didn’t get up to a whole lot. This is quite common for the weather to change drastically on the West Coast, as well as Milford Sound (which I’ll get to later), so try and have some sort of back up plan.
I stayed the night a 20 minute drive west of Fox, at Gillespies Beach, a campsite near an old gold mining settlement with a seal colony and nice coastal walks. I also stopped at the famous and stunning mirror lake of Lake Matheson, where the Southern Alps reflect onto the (usually) still waters.
Despite the weather, the drive from there onto the scenic Haast Pass was mind blowing! Definitely one of the highlights of my whole South Island road trip, and one of the most ridiculous drives I’ve ever been on. Every corner you turn and every nook and cranny is riddled with humungous waterfalls, rainforest, and random bush walks. Set aside 4-6 hours to drive the length of the Pass, depending on the weather and how many stops you would like to make.
Despite the ongoing downpours I still stopped at Thunder Creek Falls, Fantail Falls, and Roaring Billy Falls, all of which are all only a few minutes walk from the road. Majority of the bush walks I stopped and tried to go down were completely flooded so I couldn’t even make it, or, I found myself braving it and walking through knee deep water to get there. Just as breath taking, if not more, as the waterfalls were bucketing down and overflowing like nothing I’ve ever seen!
I stopped at the Blue Pools Walk, which is roughly a 30 minute round trip over two swing bridges. But yes you guessed it, the pools weren’t even blue, but a lovely brown colour!
You will be out of reception the majority of the Haast Pass so bear that in mind. Everything is well signposted however, so you should have no problem figuring out when and where to stop.
The closest big town at the south end of the Haast Pass is Wanaka. I’ve been here a couple of times before and love it. This trip though, I mainly used it as somewhere to crash for the night, at the Albert Town Campground, before heading onto Queenstown. So many amazing sights to see, you could totally spend a good few days here. Check out the wicked hikes, get on the water, and visit that bloody ‘Wanaka Tree,’ a lone tree in the middle of the lake. Admittedly I didn’t stop there as I had seen it before, but hey, a pretty sweet spot for photographers, especially at sunrise and sunset. Just prepare to battle with a million other camera lenses!
Everyone and their nana will mention the wee little natural beauty that is Queenstown, a must stop place on any South Island road trip, and for damn good reason in my eyes. A 1 hour drive from Wanaka through the Crown Range Road (shortest and most direct route) OR 1.5 hours via Cromwell (the longer but easier route). Queenstown is without a doubt one of my favourite spots, not only in New Zealand, but in the world! A hub for everything adventure and adrenaline filled, with the coolest vibes, quirky nightlife, and an utter paradise for any lover of the outdoors like myself. The perfect balance of chill and bustling, with an unimaginable amount of new things to explore coming out of it’s ears.
Oh, and those snow covered landscapes, my god! Something that has to be seen with your own eyes, a sight that takes my breath away every. single. time.
From Wanaka I decided to take the longer route via Cromwell, passing through the wine making region where I was tempted to stop and devour in all the wine and cheese I could handle. I made a quick pit stop on the side of the road at the Roaring Meg Power Station (who the hell’s Meg), then on for a quick geez at all the ardenaline junkies jumping for their lives at the world famous AJ Hackett Bungy. All before arriving at beautiful Queenstown.
Here I stayed with some family, but from what I’ve heard and read there are some awesome, sociable and cheap backpackers worth staying at. Check out Hostelworld for reviews and prices.
I ventured on what is hands down one of my favourite scenic drives in the world, the road along side Lake Wakatipu to the charming historic town of Glenorchy. Not once, but on three out of the four days I was in Queenstown. You can drive this road in 45 minutes, but it’s best not to rush and to give yourself at least half, if not an entire day to explore all the hidden gems and awe inspiring surrounding scenery this road has to offer. Find a lakeside walk or swim spot, hike on the hills, snap some photos of the snow capped Southern Alps, or as I did, be spontaneously crazy and fall out of a plane from 15,000 ft, skydiving over Glenorchy with SkyDive Southern Alps! One of the most surreal experiences of my life.
Some of my fave spots to stop on the way were Bob’s Cove, Bennett’s Bluff lookout for a spectacular photo op, Moke Lake for some sweet mountain reflections (also a sick camp spot for those camping), Sam Summer’s Hut hike (Mt Chricton Loop), and of course that iconic red boat shed in the heart of Glenorchy. The hidden and abandoned Old Glenorchy Wharf is also a gem, roughly 30 mins from Queenstown on the left hand side. If you’re a budding photographer try and get here for sunset, or sunrise like I did.
There are plenty of hikes to choose from in the area, from the challenging but rewarding Ben Lomond, to arguably the most common walk up Queenstown Hill– apart from the Fergburger line that is. Check out other attractions too- the Skyline Gondola, TSS Earnslaw– a scenic cruise on a vintage steamship, Queenstown Gardens, Skipper’s Canyon, Shotover Jet, The Remarkables Sweet Shop (free fudge tasting, yum!) the Ice Bars, epic ski slopes in winter, and even nearby Arrowtown– the cutest historic town just 15 minutes from Queenstown, perfect for a wander. Keep an eye on the website Grabone for money saving on attractions, dinner deals, etc.
You’d be silly to miss this stunner of a town, my list of things to do and see could go on forever! Obviously, I am smitten.
FIORDLAND | MILFORD SOUND
After three nights in Queenstown and feeling like a box of birds after the luxury of a shower, proper bed and a delish home cooked meal (thanks Aunty Vicky) I was back living in my car, carrying on my South Island road trip to Fiordland.
My nana and poppa had a Milford Sound themed place mate that my sister and I thought was the bees knees, consequently resulting in a fight or two, and later on in life a desperate lust to visit Fiordland. And boy oh boy did Milford live up to the hype! Just over two hours drive from Queenstown is the town of Te Anau, a great place to base yourself from- and fuel up- to take on the 119km alpine drive to majestic Milford Sound, overflowing with natural wonders and mind blowing scenery.
When I was in Queenstown I grabbed a bargain on the Grabone website I mentioned earlier and booked a cruise through the Milford Sound. Because I knew I needed to be up and at em for my cruise at 9am the next day, I began my venture towards the Sound and stayed at one of the many, many campsites along the way- choosing Lake Gunn which is one of the closest DOC sites to Milford. Probably my favourite campsite of the whole trip- clean, wide open spaces with great facilities and a nice 45 minute lakeside nature walk to enjoy. The perfect place to immerse yourself in nature, with some of the best views you’ll ever wake up too in your lifetime, hands down. The next couple of nights I stayed at some of the other campsites on the way back down SH94. There’s just something so freeing and mesmerising about camping!
The next morning I woke up stupidly early to catch the sunrise near the beach at Milford Sound, pre cruise. Bear in mind the traffic to Milford Sound is usually packed backed to back (especially at Homer Tunnel– prepare to wait up to 20 minutes) with tour buses aiming to get there in time to board their cruise. So, leaving a little earlier will work in your favour. Make sure you pack lots of insect repellent or be prepared to get eaten alive by a million and one sand flies once you hit the beach- jeepers they were a nightmare.
I actually can’t put together the words to describe the feeling I had and the view my eyeballs got to witness in Milford, the photos don’t do it justice. Milford Sound is pristine, gob smacking, and unbelievably mind blowing. There is no where quite like it.
I boarded my Go Orange cruise at 9am. There are plenty of companies you can do this cruise with, so it can get a little overwhelming taking your pick. I would recommend Go Orange- it’s affordable, the staff were friendly, free tea and coffee was provided, and the two hour trip gives you enough time to soak in all the mighty fine views, wildlife, and ridiculously high waterfalls. Milford Sound is known as the unannounced eight wonder of the world, and for blimmin’ good reason.
Fiordland is one of the wettest inhabited places in the world, so be prepared for the odds of good weather not being on your side. My day started off cloudy, which in my opinion makes for some great photos, then turned into blue bird skies. So, I was very lucky.
On the way back from Milford I used up the remainder of the day to stop at the worthy pit stops and photo ops along the way. My absolute favourite being the 3 hour return hike to Lake Marian, an alpine lake tucked in a hidden hanging valley, surrounded by mountains. Starting from Hollyford Road (just off the Milford Highway) pass over the swing bridge and raging waters of Marian Falls, before arriving at serene Lake Marian. Other notable must stop mentions are the Homer Tunnel– to see the only true alpine parrot in the world, our beautiful native Kea. The perfect reflections on the Mirror Lakes on a good day, Eglinton Valley– a ginormous stunning valley formed by a glacier, and the Chasm, a 20 minute loop walk through the rainforest to Chasm Falls. There are plenty of other awesome day and multi day hikes to do such as the Hollyford Track, Milford Track, and famous Routeburn Track– one I definitely want to tackle one day. Just like the Haast Pass drive, all these are well sign posted along the way, so you shouldn’t get too lost.
I cant stress enough that the Milford Sound drive is another place you don’t want to rush on your South Island road trip, so take it easy. Every twist and turn you’ll be awed by the insane, remote landscapes, feeling like you’ve stepped into a whole other world. Fiord lands really are the best lands.
CROMWELL – WANAKA
After a few days soaking up the Fiordland goodness I packed up my car and headed back up to the Central Otago gold mining town of Cromwell, a 2 hour 45 minute drive from Te Anau. I stayed two nights with some good family friends just out of town, in Bannockburn. Here check out the historic Old Cromwell town, pack a wee picnic to have at Lake Dunstan, take a 2 hour return walk on the ‘western movie’ terrain of Bannockburn Sluicings, indulge at some fresh fruit stalls, and of course, take a selfie with that big ass sculpture of fruit in the town centre. The region is known for producing some of the finest wines in the country, so like my friend and I did (shout out Haylee) have a sneaky beverage and get tipsy sampling at one of the many Cellar Doors open to the public- obviously if you aren’t driving. I bloody hate red wine specifically, but the $2 fee for a bunch of wine tasters went down a treat, and I felt fancy as hell.
I also took the 40 minute trip back over to Wanaka one morning to battle the 4-6 hour return on Roy’s Peak track, a breathtaking view I had seen plastered all over Instagram. It’s not the most exciting climb up to be honest, bit of a slog as I was huffing and puffing on the way, but jeepers, once you turn around and see those hectic views, it is worth every step! Once you reach the top the views over Lake Wanaka, Mount Aspiring, and the surrounding peaks are to die for. I hike I would definitely recommend to anyone. Be prepared to battle with literally a line up of tourists and photographers trying to get a picture perfect snap at the lookout.
The track is extremely popular and the carpark gets pretty jam packed, so going super early in the morning, or later in the arvo, is the best idea. Bare in mind the track is completely exposed whilst hiking straight up through farmland and alpine meadows to the summit. There is no shelter the whole way, so prepare for a scorcher on a hot day. Note- the track is closed for lambing each year between 1st October- 10th November.
AORAKI | MOUNT COOK NATIONAL PARK
A 2 hour 20 minute drive from Cromwell is the World Heritage Area of Mount Cook Village, home of the almighty 3,724 meter high Mount Cook (obviously) vast glaciers, valleys, lakes on lakes, sky scraping mountains, scenic flights, snow for Africa, amazing wildlife, and some of the darkest and clearest skies in the world- making it the unbeatable stargazing spot of New Zealand. Mount Cook truly is alpine in it’s purest form.
To get here on my South Island road trip I passed over the tussock covered mountains of Lindis Pass, a beauty in it’s own right. I made a couple of pit stops at the amazing vintage, antique and retro memorabilia shops scattered along the way, which is right up my alley. Big Rooster Antiques in Omarama and Three Creeks in Burkes Pass are notable mentions. Their stuff is to die for, I literally spent at least an hour in each shop dreaming about the day I own a home and can fill it with all things vintage and retro.
I arrived in the heart of Mount Cook Village in the arvo and set off by foot on the popular 2-3 hour return Hooker Valley Track, followed by the 1 hour return Tasman Glacier Track. Both relatively easy, well maintained, family friendly, and stunning let me tell ya! A rugged land of rock, board walks, suspensions bridges, reflections on the lakes of the Mount Cook range, and a floating iceberg or two. The end of the Hooker Valley Track is the closest you can get to iconic Mount Cook without a helicopter or challenging hike, so soak up that mighty view of the ol’ Cook sitting pretty! This is a very popular walk however, so don’t expect to be the one and only on your adventure.
Never fear, you don’t have to be an extremely fit mountaineer to explore the area. The National Park is filled with an endless amount of short walks and long hikes to choose from, whatever your fitness level, time restriction and needs. I am dying to go back and do the back country Mueller Hut one day soon. The DOC website I mentioned earlier would definitely come in handy in this area! Tip- Please make sure you always come prepared and are as safe as can be on any hike in New Zealand, especially in the mountains. I’ve had a talking to from friends and family in the past for going out adventuring by myself without telling anyone- please don’t be silly like I was. The weather can change very quickly and drastically without any warning, and you don’t want to get caught out in a panic. Proper sturdy footwear, weather appropriate clothing, high energy snack food, plenty of water and some form of communication like a mobile, are all necessities. Emergency equipment such as a first aid kit and torch, also come in handy. I no shit saw a lady walking the Hooker Valley track in high heels, what in the world!
Apart from the hiking, the National Park is filled to the brim with other things to see and do. Frolic in the fields of bright purple lupin flowers, and make a road side stop at Peter’s Lookout on SH80 for a wicked view over the blue waters of Lake Pukaki and bold Mount Cook. There’s also the Church of the Good Shepherd, the most photographed building in New Zealand, however, a little over rated in my mind. A nice wee church but overflowing with tourists freaking out over it, which takes the authentic surroundings away a little. No matter what you choose to do in the area, you will undoubtably be wow-ed over and over again. After all, it is the Southern Hemisphere in it’s rawest form.
I camped out for the night at the tranquil Lake Poaka campsite nearby, before heading off on my South Island road trip towards Arthur’s Pass the following day.
The State Highway 73 Arthur’s Pass drive is a 3 hour 45 minute driver from Tekapo to the village. It was high up on my must do list and is all about the mountainous scenery and glacier rivers, rare flora and fauna, raging waterfalls you weave around, those cheeky keas (they are renowned for taking a nibble at your window wipers, so look out!) and one hell of a captivating drive.
It’s the road that links the east back on to the wild West Coast, and is the highest crossing through the Southern Alps. My drive was slow but steady, and a mission and half of a drive if I’m honest. I only had about four days left of my South Island road trip at this point, before heading home. I ended my day staying the night a 1 hour 15 minute drive from Nelson, at the Kawatiri Junction Campsite. As I knew Nelson was the area I wanted to spend my next few days, I wanted to be close by. This was a pretty average roadside campsite, but an ideal spot between the West Coast and Nelson. Tip- Along with regularly taking stops whenever you feel even a little sleepy, always stay alert and drive safely on our roads. Take extra caution on the million one way bridges in the South and keep an eye on road closures for your journey. Check out journeys.nzta.govt.nz for this. One of the bridges on Arthur’s Pass was only just fixed in time for my visit, after being swept away during the storm at the start of my South Island road trip.
The weather was pretty crappy going over the pass, but don’t let that stop you from getting out and about and immersing yourself in nature. A few must stop spots I’d recommend are firstly, Castle Hill for some Shrek sized boulders and limestone formations- located near the start of the pass (from the East Coast). Next, two of the many falls. I am a sucker for waterfalls, there’s something about the soothing sound of fresh mountain water and the forceful feeling of water hurling to the ground- I reckon TLC definitely got it wrong. Devil’s Punchbowl Falls is a 1 hour return walk and Bridal Veil Falls is a 40 minute return. Although the later can be seen from the highway, an up close and personal look is well worth it and a good way to stretch your legs. I didn’t do this one but I’ve read that the 2 hour 40 minutes return on the Arthur’s Pass walking track let’s you experience a bit of everything- wetlands, waterfalls, and wildlife.
Arthur’s Pass really is a wonderland and you could easily spend a good few days exploring every nook and cranny in the area.
NELSON, ABEL TASMAN NATIONAL PARK AND MALBOROUGH SOUNDS
I was reluctantly nearing the end of my South Island road trip and wanted to cram as much into these following few days as possible, without rushing anything. So, what better place to be than in relaxing Abel Tasman National Park, South Island’s little slice of tropical paradise. I was so ready for a taster of lush native forest, marble and limestone hills, out of this world golden beaches, and an escape from the mountains (although I could spend a lifetime up high). You can see the park by foot on one of the many serene bush walks, or the great multi day Abel Tasman Coastal Walk. Go hand gliding in the sky, hit the water scuba diving, go swimming or kayaking in the clear as can be waters, and get up, close, and personal with the coastline and marine wildlife. The list of activities is endless.
After my night in the middle of no where I got back on the road and headed towards Nelson. A quick pit stop was made in Nelson for necessities, before carrying on my South Island road trip towards Abel Tasman. The drive is windy in places, but damn stunning. My favourite must stops were Split Apple Rock– a 20 minute return bush walk to a charming beach, where a big rock that clearly looks like an apple, split in two, sits on a reef. Cascading Wainui Falls– a 1 hour 20 minute return bush walk. The beautiful Farewell Spit right at the tippy top of the Island, and Wharariki Beach Walk– an easy 40 minute return stroll over farmlands to one of my favourite beaches I have been to in a long time. The long dirt road to get here riddled with farm animals running a muck, caves and sand dunes to explore, rustic wee huts made from sticks, and adorable playful seals, I truly felt like I was in an untouched nook of New Zealand.
I then stayed the night at the Cobb River Campsite.
The next day was my last full day of this refreshing, stunning, adventure filled South Island road trip! I wouldn’t even say it was a bittersweet end because in all honesty, I was completely in my element and didn’t want to board that ferry back. I decided to take the back road scenic route towards Picton, driving the 40km winding Queen Charlotte Drive, which takes you from Havelock to Picton, looking out over the Marlborough Sounds. You can see a large chunk of the Sounds without even leaving your car! I went down plenty of random side roads where I was met by deserted beaches, sheltered coves, and the bluest blue of bays. Definitely make a stop at the Cullen Track, a 10 minute walk to an impressive view that will leave you breathless.
My day ended at Collins Memorial Reserve, only 5 minutes drive from Picton, the perfect location to park up for the night for an early start the following day to board the ferry.
South Island, it was a pleasure. I recommend all New Zealanders to explore your own insanely beautiful backyard and take a South Island road trip at least once in your lifetime. You will completely lose your marbles (if you have any) and have a hoot!
I hope this post gave you a little insight and inspiration into what our stunning country has to offer. If you go to any of the little hot spots I mentioned, or find any hidden spots of your own, I would love to hear!
Of course, as I only had a couple of weeks to play with, I didn’t get to go to everywhere. There are so many amazing places I didn’t manage to get to on this South Island road trip. Wildlife filled Kaikoura, vibrant Christchurch, Bluff– the pearl of the South, and the Catlins Coast, just to name a few. Go with the flow and allow yourself enough time to truly experience every single step of the way.
Thanks for reading,
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