A road trip around the South Island of New Zealand with my partner was a fun-packed adventure. From breathtaking scenery to amazing wildlife, not to mention the friendly (and occasionally quirky!) locals, our road trip provided us with an abundance of incredible memories. Here is my pick of ten highlights from our South Island escapade.
Jet Boating at Buller Gorge
For a thrilling jet boat ride through pink granite rock canyons, head to Buller near the town of Murchison. For those with a fear of heights, reaching the boat is a challenge in itself – you must first cross the longest swing bridge in New Zealand, suspended high above Buller River. Not only is the canyon exceptionally beautiful, but the 360-degree spins and velocity of the boat ride make for an exciting and hair-raising experience. We were traveling on a budget, so it was a little extravagant but worth splashing out on!
Although at first glimpse, Oamaru looks like any other kiwi town, there is more to this east coast settlement than meets the eye. The town just happens to be the steampunk capital of the world, and is also home to Steampunk HQ, a unique and innovative museum. For the unenlightened, steampunk is a movement dedicated to a blend of Victoriana, science-fiction and industrialisation. The theme of steampunk runs throughout the town. Even locals get onboard and can occasionally be spotted strolling along wearing Victorian costumes. I love places that are a little different and Oamaru fitted the bill perfectly.
Okains Bay on Banks Peninsular was our first stop after collecting the hire car in Christchurch. The peninsular was formed when several volcanoes erupted, resulting in the creation of two natural harbours, Lyttelton and Akaroa. We drove across the hills along narrow, twisting roads before descending into Okains Bay. Due to its off-the-beaten-track location, the bay has a remote vibe and is a perfect place to get away from it all. The campsite where we pitched our tents backed onto the beach and was set amongst a forest of pine trees. We took strolls along the picturesque beach and explored a trail on the south side of the bay. With only one small store (founded in 1873) that sold a few basics, we picked up most of our supplies in the village of Akaroa, ten miles away.
Nestled amongst mountains and next to Lake Wakatipu, this lively town is a mecca for adrenaline junkies and nature lovers. Whether you are into bungy-jumping and zip-lining or are more inclined towards gentle hikes in the hills and watching sunsets, there is something for everyone in Queenstown. We spent several days exploring the surrounding trails as well as the narrow streets downtown which brim with cool cafes and convivial bars. With its laid-back atmosphere, Queenstown is an ideal destination to chill and meet like-minded travelers.
We lingered a few days in Hokitika, a small town on the west coast. The expansive beaches are scattered with driftwood, and we walked for miles along the sand, relishing the solitude. Half an hour’s drive from Hokitika, a short trail leads to the turquoise waters of beautiful Hokitika Gorge. Just a fifteen-minute walk from town, glow worms live in the roadside banks and illuminate the foliage like fairy lights after dark. I cannot write about Hokitika without mentioning Fat Pippi’s where we ate the best pizza in New Zealand! Talking of food, every March Hokitika hosts the Wild Food Festival where such delicacies as wasp larvae ice cream and huhu grubs can be sampled while listening to live bands. (I think I’ll stick with pizza!).
Punakaiki, otherwise known as the Pancake Rocks due to the shape of the layered outcrops, is a spectacular sight. When the tide is high, blowholes put on a stunning show, spraying water high into the sky. It’s a popular spot for road-trippers to stop off for an hour or so, but we stayed for a couple of nights. Home for those two nights was a basic hut next to the beach from where we made the most of the ruggedly beautiful coastline and excellent tramping. One of my favorite hikes led us along Pororari River Track. The trail followed a riverbank through lush rainforest, passing a limescale gorge and towering bluff loops. The area is also a popular for caving and kayaking.
Te-Anau – Milford Highway
The truth is that although we drove the length of the highway from Te Anau to Milford Sound, we didn’t take the boat trip on Milford Sound as most people do. On a sunny day, it would undoubtedly have been spectacular, but it was pouring with rain and freezing cold, so we decided against it. We did, however, thoroughly enjoy our drive along the Te Anau – Milford Highway, into the heart of Fjordland. From vast meadows to snow-capped mountains, the 75-mile journey is nothing short of magnificent.
The Catlins are situated at the south of the island and are perfect for road-tripping. You can drive for miles without seeing another vehicle. From lush rainforests and waterfalls to isolated beaches and craggy cliffs, the Catlins have it all. We took our time exploring the area, stopping off at stunning beaches, precipitous clifftops and forest trails. At Nugget Point, we spotted seals and penguins. It’s a wild, remote and often overlooked part of the South Island, but it’s worth the journey. The fact that there are so few people around is an added bonus.
Abel Tasman Coastal Trail
We stuffed our backpacks with a tent, sleeping bags and food supplies before heading to the Abel Tasman Coastal Trailhead in the north-west of the island. And so began three days of some of the most enjoyable hiking we had ever experienced. Not only was it sunny every day (the area is known for its sunshine), but the trail was easy and the views sublime. With lovely beaches, gushing waterfalls and verdant forests, there were inlets to navigate and swing bridges to cross. The campsites were well located, all either on a beach or within easy access to one. We hiked just four or five hours a day, which gave us ample time to enjoy the glorious surroundings.
The village of Franz Josef makes a great stop for a night or two. Not only is it home to the mighty glacier, but there are plenty of other attractions in the vicinity. For keen hikers, there are a slew of great tramps to do, and the area is blessed with great natural beauty. We took a delightful walk along the rocky driftwood-strewn beach, with views of the ocean on one side and the mountains on the other. You can either hike to the glacier on a scenic 1.5-hour trail or splurge on a heli-hike – a helicopter ride/ guided hike combo.