New Zealand’s South Island is full of some of the most spectacular scenery on earth. As we planned our road trip, we struggled with the question: How are we going to fit it all into two weeks?Â It’s really impossible to do it all, as the South Island of New Zealand has so many amazing places, you would need months or years to really explore it fully. But you still can try to see as much as possible if, like us, two weeks is all you have.
During our trip we experienced some of New Zealand’s worst weather in years: rainstorms, hail, and flooding that sometimes left us stranded when the roads washed out. Despite of all that, we had one of the best two weeks in our life. The nature and wildlife of the South Island of NZ are so spectacular and on such an epic scale that it’s difficult to describe them in a way that seems adequate. Each place we’ve visited deserves its own article, but I’m not patient enough to wait that long. So here is a rough outline of our itinerary and the highlights of what we saw. I hope this gives you an idea of what there is to see and do, and can help you plan your own road trip around the South Island of New Zealand.
With such a big island to explore, we wanted to make the most of our limited time and budget. The answer for us was to rent a campervan, from Jucy.Â This lets you stay mobile so there’s no need to plan ahead or book accommodation: you can just stop and sleep almost anywhere! It really let us enjoy every minute of the day, as we never spent time checking in or out of motels or searching for a place to stay. We also were never forced to end our day early as sometimes happens if you’ve got a hotel prearranged and you get there ahead of schedule – if we had time and energy left, we could just keep on going.
We picked up our rental in Christchurch and got settled in. These campervan’s aren’t big, but have pretty much all you need: a bed, gas stove, cooler/fridge, and sink. It was remarkably cheap, too: 28.80 NZD/day, since it was the off season.
From there we drove southwest to the lakes area. Lake Tekapo, Lake Pukaki, Lake Wanaka, and Lake Hawea. These lakes promised great views to the Southern Alps on clear days, but unfortunately it was constantly cloudy when we were there. We counted ourselves lucky if it was just drizzling instead of pouring rain. My favourite moments here are salmon related. Salmon? Yes, the fish. Since the weather was really bad for sightseeing, we stopped in Mt. Cook Alpine Salmon in Lake Pukaki, the highest salmon farm in the world, they claim. The salmon live inside a pen in a hydroelectric canal where a strong current flows, making them really active and fit. And the result? The best fresh salmon sashimi we’ve ever had in our life! After trying the sashimi we had to buy some fillets for a lake side picnic the next day. With the enchanting background of lake and snow capped mountains, we pan fried the salmon only with salt and pepper, nothing else. The best tasting salmon we’ve ever had!
Living in a campervan we had to come up with a place to shower, and Lake Tekapo’s hot spring offered a great solution: beautiful hot pools overlooking the lake and hot showers!
Since the weather was not predicted to be better for the days coming, we gave up on our hope to see a clear view of the alps, and headed back to the east coast. The driving to the east was one of the gloomy one. It was winter, and the sun set quite early. It got dark fast. The mountain road was winding a lot, rain made the road slippery, and visibility was very low due to the very heavy fog. After hours of driving, we reached Palmerston in the east coast. Raining in the east coast was even worse than in the lakes area, many heavy floods covering the land and some roads. In fact, the roads going out from Palmerston to the north and south were closed. Only from where we were from was opened. We slept in a parking lot by the beach that night. It was very stormy, with strong winds rocking our campervan and whipping the trees around us into a frenzy. The whole night I tossed and turned worrying that the campervan would get swept to the ocean. Ryan, on the other hand, didn’t worry at all: he fell asleep instantly and slept peacefully through the night!
The east coast was still fun even with the stormy weather, though we missed some of the natural beauty. We got to see the famous Moeraki Boulders â€“ naturally forming spherical rocks as tall as me. In Oamaru, we saw a colony of blue penguins (with height less than a foot, these are the smallest penguins in the world), a few of very rare yellow eyed penguins, and some seals. In Dunedin, we saw a gorgeous train station and drove along the misty peninsula. Even though we didn’t see any albatross that live in the area, we saw the stunning view from the cliff in the end of the peninsula.
Not hoping to get nicer weather there, we continued driving south to the Southland. If you ever have the chance to drive around the South Island, make sure to go here. At Curio Bay in the Caitlins we saw a petrified forest 180 million years old. Purakaunui Falls, is reputed to be a delicate and beautiful waterfall…but because of the heavy rainfall, it looked like a frightening torrent of muddy water!
Our next stop was Milford Sound. For those you that haven’t heard of it, Milford Sound was voted as #1 in the 101 things to do in NZ by AA group, and we totally agreed with that result. The drive toward the Milford Sound is the most beautiful drive we’ve ever taken and the sound (actually a misnamed fjord) itself is the most beautiful place we’ve ever seen! Just imagine cruising along the fjord where gorgeous mountains plunge straight down to the water, waterfalls pour down everywhere, and fur seals playing all around. We had perfect weather that day, not a cloud in the sky. Perfect reflections of the mountains in the water. The experience of being there can’t be replaced with words, photos, or videos. But with the next photo, here’s my attempt…
After Milford Sound we headed back to the lakes area to Queenstown. It’s a popular town, quite charming but also very busy and touristy, which overlooks the lake. Near Queenstown we visited Arrowtown, to get a glimpse of a gold rush town in the past, with many historical buildings preserved well and still being used at the present. The scenic route between Queenstown and Lake Wanaka is a must, if you want to experience driving â€œonâ€ the snow capped mountain. Yes, right up the mountain and above the snow line. It was pretty well plowed and gritted so driving here wasn’t a worry. But perhaps our favourite moment was going to Glenorchy, a little town near Queenstown. The drive there was incredible with stunning views from the scenic route along the lake and river. We had a nice picnic with a breathtaking view in front of us.
West coast was next. The Haas pass took us through the mountains to the west coast. We took this drive at night and had to contend with possums running all over the road. It was quite a challenge to avoid hitting them!Â First stop on the west coast was the Fox Glacier. It was our glacier day and we had perfect weather for it, with almost no clouds in view! We flew above the Fox Glacier and the Southern Alps on a helicopter ride, circling around the alps’ highest and most iconic peak, Mt. Cook, and even made a stop high up on the snowy alps. We walked around Lake Matheson to view the perfect reflection of Mt. Cook on the lake water. Then we did the hike through an empty lake bed, approaching the face of the Franz Josef Glacier up close.
Another must drive scenic road is in the west coast between Greymouth and Westport. In one side, you have the majestic mountains, and on the other side, you have the serene ocean. Along the water, you will see many strange rock formations that add the mystery of this drive. Perhaps the strangest and most iconic rock formation is the Punakaiki Rock, where the rock formations look like piles up of gigantic pancakes.
We drove all the way north to Nelson, but unfortunately ran out of time to visit the Abel Tasman National Park. However we still had the time to enjoy the famous green mussels in its capital in the world: Havelock. Truly tasty! The best mussels we’ve ever had! We saw a glimpse of Queen Charlotte Sound, and continued driving to the south along the east coast.
Kaikoura was our next stop. There we had our best experience ever observing the sea mammals in their natural habitat! We took the whale watching cruise and along the tour we saw: 4 sperm whales, several dusky dolphins, many fur seals playing on the rocks and water, and many rare ocean birds including the albatross.
It was almost time to return our trusty campervan and say goodbye to the South Island. As we headed back to to Christchurch, we took a detour to Hanmer Springs, because the car rental company gave us a 2-for-1 coupon to the famous hot springs there.
Driving in the South Island of NZ is a truly breathtaking experience. Mountains and valleys, rivers and the gorges, the alps and the lakes, beaches and cliffs, green fields of sheep everywhere, the native forests and wild life. Two weeks is way too short to experience the South Island of New Zealand, but we are happy that we did so much in this short time. One of our favourite places on earth. We are looking forward to returning there again as with our brief visit we’ve only just scratched the surface.