New Zealand’s South Island: Our two week road trip itinerary

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?  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.

Our 2 weeks South Island itinerary

Our 2 weeks South Island route

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.  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.

Our campervan!

Our campervan!

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!

Lake side picnic at Lake Wanaka. Right: cooking the salmon.

Lake side picnic at Lake Wanaka. Right: cooking the salmon.

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!

Left: Watch for the penguins! Right: Mouraki Boulders

Left: Watch for the penguins! Right: Mouraki Boulders

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 – 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!

Southland. Left: sheeps everywhere! Quite valid anywhere in New Zealand's country side. Right: Puranakui Fall after heavy rain falls.

Southland. Left: sheep everywhere! A typical scene anywhere in New Zealand's countryside. Right: Puranakui Falls after heavy rain

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…

Milford Sound

Milford Sound

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 “on” 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.

Lunch picnic at Glenorchy

Lunch picnic at Glenorchy

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!  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.

Fox Glacier and the Southern Alps

Fox Glacier and the Southern Alps

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.

Punakaiki pancake rocks at the gorgeous west coast.

Punakaiki pancake rocks at the gorgeous west coast.

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.

Kaikoura whale watching trip. Left: Sperm whale. Right: A seal on a rock.

Kaikoura whale watching trip. Left: Sperm whale. Right: A seal on a rock.

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.

Many thanks to BackpackingMatt, MobileLawyer, CrisCampos, and TravelDudes that gave us so much insight about the South Island.

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58 Responses to “New Zealand’s South Island: Our two week road trip itinerary”

  1. Esteban
    31 October 2011 at 8:48 pm #

    Hello Dina & Ryan!

    Your article is great and it gives us a very good overview of what to do when being in South Island, NZ. My girlfriend, a friend and I are travelling to NZ next month and, since we are 3 people, I was wondering about the camper. I have noticed in the Explore More website (http://www.exploremore.co.nz/) that campers are for 2 adults only. Is that true? Do we really need to rent a 2nd van just for our friend?

    Thanks for your reply! Hugs!

    • Ryan
      31 October 2011 at 10:17 pm #

      Hi Esteban,

      I checked out the campervans offered by Explore More, and they are all Toyota Hiaces with only 2 seat belts. If you try to drive around with 3 people you could get a ticket as not everyone will be belted in.

      I’d suggest going with a van that sleeps more people. The two companies we like, Jucy and Spaceship, both have vans that sleep 4 – two inside, and two in a pop-up pod on the roof. They’ve also got seatbelts for 4 people. I like their vans because they’re small, just refitted minivans really, so they’re easy to drive and park. And they’re quite cheap too.

      Another one to try would be Wicked. They’ve got bigger vans that sleep 3 inside which could be a good option for you. They’ve got space for a table inside so you can sit there if you want to. But honestly, there are so many beautiful parks and places to see that you shouldn’t be spending your time sitting in the van.

      I know you’ll have a great trip. Let us know how it goes!

      Ryan

  2. Keith
    2 November 2011 at 2:16 pm #

    Hi Dina and Ryan,

    Thank you so much for sharing your travels as you explore the world so we can benefit from your experience. I am so envious that you are traveling every day. It is amazing!

    Well, I get a couple of weeks off a year working in a regular job and my next trip is New Zealand.

    I am thinking of renting a Campervan from Jucy after reading your blog. Can you give some advice as to whether it is easy to find places to shower? Are there public baths where you pay for single use, etc?

    Thank you so much,
    Keith

    • natasha
      22 November 2011 at 6:07 pm #

      hi i traveled the south island in a jucy camper last year, we roughed it in a few dodgy campsites for about 7 dollars a night each, this gives u a place to legally park (u will find many places campers are not allowed to park over night.. and u will get asked to move or fined) but after a few nights of these rough campgrounds with nothing but a hole in the ground for a toilet we were more than happy to pay around 20 a night each to park in the top10 caravan parks, these have kitchens and showers and everything u could need to feel refreshed but u just sleep in your camper still, its a good compromise for travellers that dont want to look and feel like travellers inbetween! we couldnt find any public places to shower otherwise just public toilets which are quite awkward to have a wash in the sink with people looking at you very strangely…

  3. Sam
    1 January 2012 at 2:36 pm #

    Hi Dina & Ryan,

    May i ask what was budgeted for your 2 weeks on the road covering south island of NZ for 2 pax?

    • Ryan
      12 February 2012 at 12:19 am #

      Hi Sam,

      Our budget was about 80 NZD / day for both of us. Since it was the off season our campervan was only 28.80 NZD / day. Fuel was around 20-30 a day. There aren’t a lot of expenses in terms of admissions or fees, since most of the activities are free, but we did spend a bit on doing a helicopter ride at Fox Glacier. And then for food we mostly cooked and tried to stick to produce we bought from farms or markets along the way which were good value.

      Your budget can easily go up or down depending on how many activities you want to do, and how much excellent New Zealand wine you want to drink, but it can be done quite inexpensively.

  4. Adam @ PergiDulu
    25 May 2012 at 11:49 am #

    Ok, this is a great article to get us in the mood for the south island and it’s great to know about your budget! We want to do a couple of things like the whale-watching but weren’t sure if it was going to break the budget or not.

    • Dina
      25 May 2012 at 6:00 pm #

      yeah, money was one of our limitation too from doing amazing activities in NZ. Going off season and doing campervan helped a lot. But still many amazing activities that cost over $100 each person. Are you guys going to do bungee etc?
      Don’t skip Milford cruise! Doubtful, we haven’t been, no time to do both at that time. undoubtly, will do doubtful one next time!
      (what, pun? no, there’s no pun!)

  5. Ronwyn Roper
    21 June 2012 at 2:42 am #

    Hi, my boyfriend and i are doing a similar trip to what you have done in December this year. We just have a few questions for you if you don’t mind answering. How much was the helicopter ride? and how much was the boat trip? Are the destinations clearly marked as well or do you have to look for them yourselves?
    Thanks:)

  6. Adam - Tropical Nomad
    12 March 2013 at 3:32 am #

    Hey Dina and Ryan!
    I am living in Queenstown at the minute, and must say I love the South Island of New Zealand. We went to Milford Sound last week, with Juicy cruises. They are a great company to use. However, I am looking to buy a Hiace camper to travel the South Island, as the old Toyota’s are the bomb!

    All the best

    Adam
    Adam – Tropical Nomad´s last post…Working in Australia – My Summary

  7. Ross
    27 August 2013 at 11:26 am #

    Great post, your pictures are very good. It brings back a lot of memories for me. I did it in a spaceship (exact same as Juicy) but there were 4 of us, 2 of us slept on the roof so when it got windy there was some amount of noise like you describe. I loved it but there can be a bit of tension after 4 wks on the south island where all 4 of us have to do everything together, getting up, dinner, bed etc. We got good at swimming from all the swimming pools we visited for showers!
    Your right about Milford Sound, a super location.
    Ross´s last post…Tomatina Festival

  8. Lynnelle
    13 October 2013 at 3:09 am #

    Hi, we’ve just returned from our road trip around the south island and I found your image of your map on google images. I am trying to do a similar thing for our trip but can’t find where to do it. I’ve tried Google Maps but the lines between each point come out straight and don’t follow the road. Hoping you can help. Plus your photo’s are beautiful…such a beautiful place. xx
    Thanks Lynnelle

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