Exploring South Island New Zealand is an experience that seemingly everyone has on their bucket list. Its otherworldly landscape attracts all kinds of travellers, from adventure enthusiasts to food and wine connoisseurs. It’s a trip that sat in the back of my mind for years, not knowing exactly how to tackle the vast landscape. Then, after a short trip to Queenstown I realised how important it is to have your own vehicle for exploring, and set out on planning our itinerary. Being the second time we’ve hired a motorhome I’m sharing the tips we picked up along the way for conquering this dramatic drive.
ABOUT SOUTH ISLAND NEW ZEALAND
South Island New Zealand is like nowhere else I’ve traveled. Its jagged snow-capped mountains are something I had previously reserved for a trip to Europe or Canada. Add to that the waterfalls, glaciers, lakes and fjords, and it becomes a drive where it’s hard to keep your eyes on the road! South Island is considerably larger than the north, giving it the nickname of Mainland despite its smaller population.
I’ve visited Auckland and its surrounds just once but it quickly became evident how different South Island New Zealand is, starting with the stunning descent into the airport. #TheRealMiddleEarth leaves little to the imagination, instead displaying Mother Nature at her best and most diverse. But it’s not just landscape lovers that are looked after here. This unique climate produces some of the world’s best wine and is home to fresh produce straight from the farm. South Island New Zealand is truly a destination that every Australian should visit, if only to experience something vastly different just 3 hours away.
OUR SELF-DRIVE ITINERARY
TIME OF YEAR: Early September (Spring)
DURATION: 2 weeks. You could easily spend another week here by adding time in Christchurch itself or venturing to the northern end of the island.
VEHICLE: A ‘Cruise 4’ motorhome from Wilderness NZ.
FLIGHTS: In and out from Christchurch.
DIRECTION: Anti-clockwise (west coast first). Although, given the weather on the west coast we should have gone in the other direction! Keep the forecast in mind when planning your trip as the weather is vastly different from one town to the next.
DAY 1: ARRIVE IN CHRISTCHURCH
Flying into Christchurch we picked up our car from Wilderness NZ. We were originally planning to fly into Queenstown but Wilderness isn’t based there and we were completely sold on hiring one of their motorhomes. After doing the trip I would recommend also starting and finishing in Christchurch. That way you can complete a full circle with less doubling-back on your drive.
From the airport, it’s a short transfer to pick up the vehicle. Afterwards we made a beeline for the supermarket to stock up on supplies. If you want to explore Christchurch itself, the CBD is home to great cafes and restaurants, encased within historic facades. We were tight for time and decided to hit the road for the west coast. There are a couple of options for traversing the National Parks here which I’ll go through below.
STAY: Hanmer Springs on Jollies Pass Road (free).
DAY 2: HANMER SPRINGS OR ARTHUR’S PASS
As I mentioned above, there are a couple of spectacular options for driving to the west coast. The most popular being Arthur’s Pass. This takes you through the National Park with plenty of photo opportunities along the way. Most notable is Devils Punchbowl Walking Track which takes you to a 131m high waterfall in an hour-long walk (return). There are shorter walks available if you just want a quick stop to stretch your legs.
You’re probably wondering why we didn’t take this path, instead heading north to Hanmer Springs. On our first afternoon we were loosing light quickly and knew we could reach Hanmer Springs campsites in good time. We were a little worried about getting to Arthur’s Pass in the dark and not being able to find a safe (and legal) spot to stay the night. Thankfully, the road from Hanmer Springs on Day 2 proved to be just as picturesque. It follows crystal clear rivers, often cutting through the sheer rock above.
STAY: Punakaiki, along the State Highway (free).
The road winds along Buller River, heading for Westport.
Lake Mapourika, just outside of Franz Josef Glacier.
DAY 3: FRANZ JOSEF GLACIER
Waking up by the shore of Punakaiki we explored Pancake Rocks at sunrise. The weather was quite severe and the rocks blanketed in clouds so we set off relatively early. Heading south, we hugged the coastline and took our time, stopping in small towns like Ross and stocking up on food and wine in Greymouth. However, it was an impromptu stop just 15 minutes outside of the glacier that we enjoyed the most. Lake Mapourika (above), is a beautifully calm lake, lined with lush forest and home to a quaint jetty. There’s plenty of room to park there and spend some time taking in the scenery.
Arriving at Franz Josef town there are several paid parking options for campervans and motorhomes. In a few short blocks you’ll find these tucked between bars, cafes and tour providers. We paid for a powered site, then drove to the glacier car park (a further 10 minutes) to set off on an afternoon walk. There’s a nice elevated spot early on in the walk to capture wide shots from. Then you can continue down onto the valley floor to walk up to the glacier base. We got about half way and had to leave when it started to hail (perhaps we should’ve gone to the hot pools afterwards)! If you want to book a guided glacier walk or flight I would absolutely stay another day here.
STAY: Franz Josef Campervan Park, $35 for 2 people.
The first glimpse of Franz Josef Glacier.
DAY 4: LAKE MATHESON AND FOX GLACIER
After waking up to a bit of a white out we decided to focus our attention on Lake Matheson rather than the higher peaks. This lake is famous for its mirror-like reflections that duplicate the snowy mountains above. The short walk to Jetty Viewpoint is beautifully lush and bathed in ferns. We stayed there to sit out the rain so that the water would settle. We came away with this almost perfectly still reflection below. On returning to the car park there’s a cafe and gift shop nearby to enjoy.
Fox Glacier sits in the background of Lake Matheson’s reflections and offers another opportunity to hike or fly over the ice. If you’re keen for the quintessential blue ice shot I would recommend paying for a guided ice walk where you get the opportunity to stand inside the huge glacial caverns.
STAY: We drove straight through to Wanaka, however I’ve allowed a night’s stay here to accommodate those who would do a day tour in either glacier.
Knights Point Lookout.
DAY 5: HAAST PASS AND LAKE WANAKA
Driving through Haast Pass was one of my favourite experiences of the trip, and definitely my favourite section of road. It’s surrounded by small waterfalls trickling onto the road. At this time of year (spring) the warm change had clashed with a cold front moving through which meant SNOW! We were lucky that the road wasn’t closed yet and chains weren’t required but what was meant to be a 2-hour trip turned into half a day of stopping endlessly for photos. Our favourite little detour was Fantail Falls where we walked through snow-covered pines to discover an expanse of pristine water. If you want to see some bigger falls stop in at Thunder Creek Falls where the drop extends for 96 meters.
STAY: Wanaka Lakeview Holiday Park, $37 for 2.
DAY 6: LAKE WANAKA AND SKI FIELDS
Now I can’t write a South Island New Zealand guide without mentioning #thatwanakatree. With its own pinpoint on Google Maps you can easily find this once unassuming tree which has become a photography hotspot. Captured here at sunset, the tree is engulfed by Lake Wanaka, set on the backdrop of Mount Aspiring. Venturing down to the shore at sunset is a must, if not for the peaceful outlook then for jostling of photographers that inevitably ensues.
Lake Wanaka is also home to some great bars and restaurants which come alive at night in true après-ski style. We found it hard to choose a warm retreat, eventually settling on Speight’s Ale House for a hearty meal. In the morning we set off for Treble Cone to get our ski-field fix. The steep ascent was possible in our motorhome early in the morning, however the roads can become icy and often require chains later in the day. The view from Treble Cone is unbeatable and worth navigating its tight corners. Cardrona, Coronet Peak and The Remarkables are other ski fields located on the drive towards Queenstown if you’d prefer to head south.
STAY: Near your ski-field of choice.
*TIP: If you’re more see than ski, swap the slopes for a hike to Roys Peak which starts only 10 minutes from Wanaka Town.
That Wanaka Tree.
Halfway up to Treble Cone.
DAY 7: GLENORCHY AND QUEENSTOWN
Last time we visited Queenstown we drove to the southern end of Lake Wakatipu, stopping in peaceful Kingston. This time, we set off for the northern bank and the town of Glenorchy. You’ll probably recognise the boatshed and jetty below from many an Instagram post. We experienced it in much more moody weather and actually woke up to snow there in the morning. There’s not much to the town itself but the drive there provides endless photo opportunities of rolling hills and the pristine river below.
On your way to or from Glenorchy it pays to check out Queenstown’s beautifully quaint harbour. Sample treats like homemade fudge and ice cream from Patagonia chocolates (the best I’ve ever had) whilst strolling the esplanade. Queenstown really does deserve a few days of exploration with unbeatable food, wine and adventure activities. It’s the perfect location for treating yourself to an indulgent dinner with so many restaurants within walking distance. I’ll be taking your through just that later in the guide when we return to the Otago region.
STAY: Glenorchy waterfront, free.
DAY 8: TE ANAU AND FIORDLAND NATIONAL PARK
Te Anau is the gateway to Fiordland National park, home to both Milfound and Doubtful Sound. The drive from Queenstown reveals a different side of South Island New Zealand. One where spring lambs say hello at the fence and cherry blossoms soften rustic facades. The countryside is surprisingly lush and I guess a glimpse of the wet climate ahead. Arriving in Te Anau you’ll find plenty of tour providers for the aforementioned natural wonders. With a lovely waterfront reserve and a few restaurants to choose from it’s a nice opportunity to relax for the afternoon.
STAY: Possum Lodge at Manapouri, $39 for 2.
*NOTE: We had a cruise departing Manapouri the following day and decided to make a head start by staying there the night before. If you’re heading for Milford Sound I would recommend staying at a free or ‘honour system’ camp ground between Te Anau and Upper Eglinton.
Countryside in Southland.
A short walk from Upper Eglinton Campsite.
Mirror Lakes near Mt Eglinton.
DAY 9: MILFORD OR DOUBTFUL SOUND
Earlier in the trip we had our hearts set on driving to Milford Sound but huge snowfalls saw the road closed and our tour canceled. We decided to rebook one to Doubtful Sound which was more expensive but certainly worth the detour. The upside of this tour was that it included two boat trips and a bus ride over the most spectacular mountain pass. This location deserves a post of its own so I’ve just included a taste of the landscape below.
After a huge day of sightseeing we were keen to find a campsite before getting too tired. We decided to head north to hopefully get a glimpse of the Milford Sound area in the morning. We pulled up at Upper Eglinton, just before the road closures. The campsite worked on an honour system whereby you place a cash payment in the deposit box. Staying there really paid off, with the fog lifting the following morning to reveal babbling brooks and reflective lakes nearby.
STAY: Upper Eglinton Campsite, $8 cash per person.
Looking over the Doubtful Sound from the bus route.
Cruising through the sound.
Local seal colony.
DAY 10: OTAGO WINE REGION
To complete the second half of our circuit we decided to cut back through the Otago region. This meant revisiting areas around Queenstown which we were more than happy to do. Alternatively, you could head south to Invercargill or East to Dunedin. Just keep in mind that this will add several days to your itinerary.
Otago’s wine region is arguably one of the most picturesque in the world. Vineyards hug the lakeside and extend up into arid hills. Most famous for its pinot noir, white wine lovers can also get their fix here with chardonnay coming in a close second. We visited Akarua’s cellar door just outside of Queenstown and indulged in a delicious lunch. Amisfield’s bistro also has a fantastic tasting menu if you’d like to indulge with matching wines.
Another site not to be missed in Otago is Arrowtown. I visited this quaint, gold mining town on my previous trip but couldn’t wait to return to see its olde worlde facades again. You can find out more about Arrowtown in my guide to Queenstown but if you’re up for country nostalgia add it to the list!
STAY: Outside of Queenstown’s ‘free-camping’ exclusion zone, free.
*NOTE: ‘Free-camping’ in New Zealand refers to self contained motorhomes staying overnight, free of charge and off the roadside. It’s legal in most parts with the exception of major towns like Queenstown that have mapped out exclusion zones. These maps can usually be found at dump stations. Other than that, if you do see a ‘no free-camping’ sign it only extends for 200m either side, after which you can camp legally.
Akarua’s cellar door.
Happy to see this friendly face again in Arrowtown.
DAY 11: MT COOK AND LAKE PUKAKI
Driving towards Mt Cook (Aoraki) really marks the start of a new adventure on this route. Being the highest mountain in New Zealand there’s a lot of anticipation as you approach its looming peaks. Heading from Cromwell you’ll pass through Lindis Valley which offers up a great photo spot for landscape photographers. Then after two-hours drive, the chalky blue water of Lake Pukaki greets you. Driving along its jagged shore sets a spectacular tone for the scenery that awaits.
Mt Cook Village sits tucked beneath huge slabs of glacial ice. A central hub dwarfed by mother nature. Free camping is not allowed here, instead several campsites are available with the only option for motorhomes being White Horse Hill Campsite. We arrived to find the road to White Horse closed and were forced to detour into the village itself. There is parking at the rear of the village specifically for motorhomes. This is where we stayed for the next two nights, praying the rangers wouldn’t fine us!
STAY: White Horse Hill Campsite, $13pp non-powered. Alternatively, there’s Mt Cook Village motorhome car park, (illegal) but free.
The summit of Mt Cook from Lake Pukaki.
DAY 12: MT COOK’S HOOKER VALLEY TRACK
Hooker Valley Track was one of the first items on my South Island New Zealand bucket list. Its zigzagging boardwalk had caught my eye in the feeds of a few travel photographers I follow. What we didn’t expect though was a layer of heavy snow to completely cover the track before our arrival. What is normally a 3 hour return trip almost doubled as we trudged our way through the slippery route, stopping way too often for photos. The walk takes you over the stunning Hooker River, finishing at the base of Hooker Glacier. It is absolutely spectacular, perhaps even more so in the snow, and a must do in Mt Cook National Park.
If you would like an easier walking option I recommend visiting Tasman Glacier and the Blue Lakes. This 1-hour return walk will give you a taste of glacial ice chunks surrounded by alpine-fed lakes. After a full day of exploring Mt Cook’s icy slopes you will absolutely need a good rest. I recommend staying put in the area and resting your feet in the village bar.
STAY: White Horse Hill Campsite, $13pp non-powered.
The first of three suspension bridges on Hooker Valley Track.
DAY 13: LAKE TEKAPO
The following morning it’s time for a relaxed pace with a short drive to Lake Tekapo. This lake is well known amongst photographers as an excellent astrophotography location. If the nearby Mt John observatory doesn’t convince you then the milky way hanging above a local stone church will. The Church of the Good Shepherd has become the subject of a lot of landscape photographs for its charming facade and star-studded backdrop. We visited at sunset and later in the night to capture the blanket of stars. The scene at night was the most amusing with a swarm of photographers vying for the best spot.
We decided to stay outside of Lake Tekapo in a quieter spot by Lake McGregor. This campsite made for some great exploring with a stunning sunrise over the water and Lake Alexandria just a stone’s throw away.
STAY: Lake McGregor Campsite, $8 cash per person.
Sunset at Lake Tekapo.
Church of the Good Shepherd by night.
DAY 14: MT HUTT AND CHRISTCHURCH
Dropping the motorhome back late afternoon allowed us to take a leisurely drive back to Christchurch. The Canterbury countryside is dotted with quirky gift shops, freshly baked pastries and friendly farm animals. Every now and then you’ll spot the distinct shaggy coat of a highland cow or stop for tractors herding sheep across the road. My favourite pit stop was Talbot Forest Cheese in Geraldine. I chose a chunk of Mt Somers Blue to nibble on during our last day. Speaking of Mt Somers, this area really caught our eye from the road. Even though it was bathed in snow it also serves as a popular walking track in summer with the longest route taking two days.
Our next stop also doubles as a great camping location if you’re staying an extra night. Rakaia Gorge Campsite, as the name suggests, is perched above the aquamarine Rakaia River. It only takes a couple of minutes walk from the carpark to reach its refreshing banks. In summer I’d imagine this would be the perfect spot to cool off before your flight. It’s only an hour’s drive on from here to reach the airport.
A short walk from the campsite reveals this beauty.
TIME IN SOUTH ISLAND NEW ZEALAND
We moved quite quickly through some parts of South Island New Zealand in order to tick everything off our list. It would be so easy to spend a month here, exploring the outer reaches of the coastline. We allowed extra time where it mattered, for huge sites like Milford Sound and Mt Cook. This is something that I think is so important to avoid exhaustion and really take in your surroundings. When planning your own trip you may want to prioritise different activities, like two days of wine tasting or a scenic flight.
If you want to extend your trip even more (let’s face it, who doesn’t?), detour to the town of Akaroa on the eastern peninsular. This historic French and British settlement provides a cultural insight into New Zealand’s past, in a quaint seaside setting.
If you have any questions about our trip or possible alternatives for your own preferences please leave me a comment below. I’ve had some requests for a packing guide for South Island New Zealand so I’ll be following up with that later this month!
Photography by Escape Button and Justin Rule.