This is a post in retrospect, in that I actually took this trip a year ago. The other day one of my friends asked for my advice on road tripping around New Zealand’s South Island. So after I’d sent her my itinerary I thought I may as well go one step further and write a post about so I could share this trip and my advice with everyone else too. Our road trip began and finished in Christchurch and took us via Te Anau, Milford Sound, Queenstown and Fox Glacier as we visited four of New Zealand’s regions: Canterbury, Otago, Southland and West Coast.
Day 1: Christchurch
It was a four hour flight from Melbourne to Christchurch and we arrived just before midnight. We were greeted at the airport by a sniffer dog. And no, this dog was not looking for illicit drugs, this adorable lab was hunting for smuggled honey. New Zealand has some of the only disease-free bees in the world and they’d like to keep it that way so bee products are strictly banned. We got our hire car, drove to our motel and settled in for the night ready for an early wake up the next morning.
Day 2: Christchurch → Timaru → Hampden → Dunedin
Timaru is a 2½ drive south of Christchurch. It’s a pretty town where you can get lunch, walk along the coast and check out the lighthouse.
From Timaru it’s another hour and a half south to Hampden, the highlight of which is the Moeraki Boulders. The boulders are enormous spherical balls of mud, silt and clay that have been compressed and cemented with calcite. It is a natural phenomenon unique to only a couple of places on earth and the beaches at Hampden are full of them. Each one took around 4 – 5 million years to form, so you’re looking at something pretty magical. By the time they’ve made their way to the earth’s surface where you can see them many of them develop cracks and eventually split open. This only makes them more incredible to look at though. A little down the road from the boulders is a restaurant called Fleur’s Place where you can get freshly caught seafood with excellent views.
Our night was then spent in Dunedin, a town located about an hour south of Hampden.
Day 3: Dunedin → Otago Peninsula → Te Anau
Dunedin is the gate to the Otago Peninsula. To me the Otago Peninsula didn’t feel like a place you expect to find in New Zealand. I felt more as though I was in Scotland, not helped of course by the rain and the abundance of thistles.
The Peninsula is also home to new Zealand’s only castle, Larnach Castle. From there we made our way to Te Anau which is just under a four hour drive west. With stops along the way to admire the scenery and have lunch, the drive took up the better part of a day and we arrived at Te Anau in the late afternoon just before sunset.
Te Anau is situated on an enormous lake at the edge of Fjordland National Park. It’s a great place to start if you plan on venturing out to the fjords, which you should.
Day 4: Te Anau
First on the agenda was a visit to the Te Anau Bird Sanctuary. It may surprise you to know that New Zealand doesn’t have any native mammals or marsupials. The possums you see everywhere are a pest introduced from Australia. New Zealand is however know for its bird life. Until a few hundred years ago the island was home to the biggest bird on earth at the time, the Moa bird reached around 3.6 metres (12 feet) but this bird along with many others went extinct due to hunting. Still, New Zealand is home to many other impressive birds.
Our next stop was the Kepler Track. This track is actually 60 kilometres long but it starts and finishes in Te Anau. We didn’t have the time to do the entire track (obviously) as it takes days to walk. So we just enjoyed the first few kilometres and turned back. The scenery was spectacular though.
In the afternoon we went on a tour with Real Journeys to see the glow worm caves in South Fjord (one of the fjords connected to Lake Te Anau.)
The boat ride over was freezing cold. There were maybe forty other people on the boat but only my family were game enough to stand out on the deck, everyone else huddled inside. Honestly my face froze but it was worth it to see undisturbed 360˚ views of the lake and fjord.
Day 5: Te Anau, Day Trip: Milford Sound
There were two days during the trip that really stood out above the rest and this was the first. I mean the whole trip was amazing but you know how certain things always stick out more than others. Well, Milford Sound was one of them.
It was just under a two hour drive to Milford Sound but we allowed plenty of extra time for stops. The scenery through the Fjordland National Park is spectacular. Waterfalls just appear on the side of all the mountains as soon as it’s been raining.
You really should take a cruise if you’re going to Milford Sound because the further into the fjord you go, the more incredible the views and you can really only do this by boat. The tour we took cost us $288 NZD ($270 AUD, 180€, £156) for four people and we chose to go with Real Journeys again. I really would recommend this company as we just had a great experience.
Once again it was just my family braving the cold and the gail-force winds (slight exaggeration) on the top deck while possibly a hundred other people huddled inside. In a way this made the experience even better as it was just us and we felt like we were on our own private cruise. The view is so much better from outside and you’ll actually feel like you’re experiencing the place even if your face and hands go completely numb.
Everything about Milford Sound is mesmerising. Photos don’t do it justice, you just can’t comprehend how monumental everything is. You really just have to go there.
We even got to see seals at one point. There were a dozen of them huddled together on a rock. They were well camouflaged, we almost missed them entirely.
On the way back from Milford Sound we made numerous stops along the way to venture down little tracks and admire the scenery. The best stop we made was at The Chasm, not far from Milford Sound. There were lots of little freshwater pools and I couldn’t help wishing that it was Summer and I could swim in them – I’m not entirely sure if you’re allowed to though anyway.
Day 6: Te Anau → Queenstown
Just 2 hours north-east of Te Anau is Queenstown. Queenstown is a small city is a very active one at that. There are just endless outdoor activities to choose from including skiing, kayaking, rowing, hiking, cycling etc.
When we arrived in Queenstown, we settled into our hotel then drove up the mountain to the Kiwi Birdlife Park, and yes, as the name suggests you can see kiwis there. Though you will be encountering them under infrared light in a dark house as it turns out they’re nocturnal. From there we then went on the Skyline Queenstown, which is a gondola up the mountainside. You get fantastic views of Queenstown, so I highly recommend it.
Dinner was at Fergburger, we had to queue for ages with tourists and locals alike but it was definitely worth it for the burgers.We all stayed at St Moritz Queenstown which isn’t the usual accommodation I would choose (because it’s quite pricey) but it really was a lovely hotel and I would stay there again.
Day 7: Queenstown → Wanaka
If you’re staying in Queenstown, there are some great walks along the edge of Lake Wakatipu to providing views of Mount Creighton.
Day 8: Queenstown
Our morning was spent kayaking around Lake Wakatipu. I hadn’t been kayaking for years and after getting the hang of it again it was just so much fun and such a great start to the morning.
We then set off for Wanaka. On our way we stopped in old mining town of Arrowtown and wandered around the old Historic Chinese Settlement areas before getting some lunch.
So we continued to Wanaka passing through the most beautiful scenery as we went. You can see why they shot Lord of the Rings here. There’s no other place like it.
Day 9: Wanaka → Fox Glacier
Fox Glacier is situated 3½ hours north-east of Wanaka. The western coast of New Zealand’s South Island is dotted with glaciers like Fox Glacier.
Along the way, I recommend a stop at Lake Hawea where it’s just too tempting to skip the perfectly flat stones that lie everywhere.
The Blue Pools Walk is also along the way, just further on front Lake Hawea and it really does live up to the name. The Makarora River is just the most gorgeous blue.
Once again, the flat stones prove only too tempting as we make our own stone towers. Of course this quickly got competitive in my family and we proceeded to spend the next few hours making bigger and better towers. The pools made me wish I’d brought some bathers as I would have braved the icy water just to swim in that crystal clear water.
Day 10: Fox Glacier
You know how I said earlier that a couple of days stood out about the rest and that Milford Sound was the first? Well, Fox Glacier was the second one.
We had booked a helicopter flight to the glacier with Glacier Helicopters but we still needed to hear whether the conditions were suitable to flying. So early in the morning we arrived, they confirmed our flight and weighed us all so they would know where to place us in the helicopter.
Helicopter flights are expensive, there’s no way to avoid the costs but if you can swing it I really recommend you go on one. The glacier has receded so much in recent years that the walking tracks no longer provide you with really spectacular views. A helicopter flight really is the only way to do it justice.
You can’t see it from the ground but Fox Glacier is full of blue ice. This happens when snow compresses and becomes part of the glacier itself. I’m sure there’s a more scientific way of explaining it but that’s my understanding of the phenomenon.
The best part of the helicopter flight was landing on top of the glacier and walk around. Of course my partner and my dad decided this was the best possible place to have a push-up contest and really how many people can say they’ve done push-ups on top of glacier? I get it.
After our helicopter flight we were keen to see the glacier on foot so we drove to the carpark. There are signs there showing where the glacier used to finish but due to climate change the glacier has retreated so far up the mountain it’s a couple of kilometres before you actually reach it. The end of the glacier is quite dirty and although it’s a beautiful hike I was so glad we went on the helicopter ride and got to see the glacier’s true beauty.
Day 11: Fox Glacier → Christchurch
From Fox Glacier to Christchurch it’s a 5½ hour drive. Along the way you will pass Castle Hill, well worth a wander.
Christchurch is the third biggest urban area in New Zealand in terms of population but locals have apparently left in droves after the most recent earthquakes. The earthquake in 2011 left a lot of the city in ruins and 185 people were killed. The city hasn’t really recovered though it’s clear to see there are efforts being made to heal.
Everywhere you look there’s construction as they rebuild. Even years on there are parts of the city that feel like the earthquake only just happened. We past a carpark that had filled entirely with water. When people stop intervening in maintaining architecture its interesting to see just how quickly nature takes over it.
Many buildings are cordoned off, still to be demolished as they are no longer structurally sound.
It’s sad to see what a terrible toll the earthquake took on this city. but there are still some beautiful places left in Christchurch that are thriving and I recommend a visit to the Christchurch Botanic Gardens.
It was the end of our road trip around the New Zealand’s South Island and what a road trip it had been.
I hope you’ve enjoyed reading about my road trip around New Zealand. Let me know if you have any questions or want any advice about the locations I mentioned.
If you enjoyed this post you might also like reading about our road trip along the Great Ocean Road.