Article South Island Road Trip
In this article we will tell you about our 5 week trip through the South Island of New Zealand. We will let you know about our itinerary and the spots we visited, which will definitely include some of the “must dos” for your own travels in New Zealand.
“We” is my boyfriend Torben (31 years old) and I, Lotta (27 years old). I have been working for SHAREaCAMPER for more than 3 years; firstly in Germany and the last 10 month in the Auckland office. Torben also joined SaC for about 4 months. Living in Auckland since late 2018, we spent much of our free time travelling around the North Island in our van. We will now finish our New Zealand adventure with a spring South Island Trip and will take you with us on that journey. So: be curious and hopefully you will get some great tips and hints out of our blog.
Since we lived in Auckland, we started our trip in the north and made our way down to Wellington to catch the ferry to Picton. Buddy, our beloved van, is only 6 years younger than I am and not as fast on the road. We didn’t want to rush down to Wellington in one day. That would just not be possible with our Buddy.
We started with a brief one-night stop-over in Tongariro National Park and did a little hike close to the Turoa Ski field. The Waitonga Falls track is an easy 1:20 hour return walk through greatly varied landscapes. A bit further up the road is a 5 minute walk to another waterfall called Mangawhero Fall. If you are a Lord of the Rings fan, you might recognise this from one in the movies. The actor who played Gollum had to shoot some winter shots there in the ice cold water. Brrr.
We continued driving up the road to Turoa Ski Field but it was so cloudy and foggy that we couldn’t see further that about 10-20 meters and the road was muddy and snowy so we turned around and made our way towards our next destination: Wellington.
One of the things left on our North Island Bucket List was the Putangirua Pinnacle Track which was also a shooting location of one of the Lord of the Rings movies. Maybe you remember the scene where Legolas, Aragorn and Gimli made their way to the army of the dead? No? Than you will definitely remember it when you see the following pictures. It was a great walk and we felt like we were in the middle of the movie set. You can read more about the walk in this article.
After completing this location on the bucket list we made our way to Wellington and took the ferry to Picton the next morning. After arriving there at around 12:30 pm we continued our drive to our first South Island stop: Abel Tasman National Park. We arrived at The Barn Backpackers and Campsite in Marahau in the early evening and booked a taxi boat to Bark Bay for the next morning. Hiking all the way back to the Campsite was about 24 km and took us around 7 hours. Read more about hiking the Abel Tasman Coast Track and what else you can explore in the northern area here.
The next morning we continued driving north on route 60 to the northernmost point on the South Island, Cape Farewell. It’s a beautiful coastline and you can park your car and walk 2 minutes to the Cape. If you have some more time to explore that area, the Wharariki Beach is a beautiful spot for a further stop. It is a 20 minute walk from the carpark and you will come across beautiful farmland with sheep, cows and a small area of forestland. After a walk through the dunes, you will have a stunning view of the beach with its rough coastline. We walked along the beach and encountered a seal a short distance from us, rolling around in the sand and enjoying the sunshine. On our way back, we made a small stop in Puponga at the Farewell Spit. There you can have a coffee with a view from the terrace of a little cafe or take the Walkway Te Papa Atawbai to explore the Spit. That night, we stayed a bit further south, at the Golden Bay Holiday Park. It was a great stay with some beautiful beach sites. We spent the evening in the well known Mussel Inn with delicious food and some beer tasting.
We continued our trip to Nelson, where we stayed at the farm of the parents of one of our Auckland friends. This is why we don’t have any recommendations about where to stay in this area. The farmers’ market in Nelson is definitely worth a visit if you stay over the weekend. It takes place every Saturday from 8 am to 1 pm and you can buy fruit and veggies as well as handcrafted pieces made by farmers and people around the Nelson area or enjoy some tasty local food from the various food trucks.
After our visit to the market we continued our way to the west coast. You can find an amazing picnic spot if you make a small detour to the Nelson Lakes National Park at Lake Rotoroa. If you are thinking about staying a bit longer, you will find a basic campground right next to the lake. There are many walks in that area, like the Braeburn Track, a great 2 hour loop track. If you want to spend some more time in the National Park, we can recommend the Mount Robert Circuit, which is a 5 hour return advanced loop track around the northern face of Pourangahau/Mount Robert. The track offers spectacular views over Lake Rotoiti, which can be done as an overnight or day walk. Check out more nice walks at the Department of Conservation Website. We continued driving west after a picnic stop at Lake Rotoroa on route 6. The road leads you along the beautiful and babbling Buller River with great landscape surrounding your way. A worthwhile stop on this route is the Buller Gorge Swing Bridge, which is New Zealand’s longest swing bridge. Read more here. For the next night we chose the Carters Beach Top 10 Holiday Park in Westport, but free camping is also allowed in this area.
We left Westport the next morning and started driving down the west coast. Unfortunately, the weather turned out to be cloudy and rainy. Our first stop this day was the Pororari River just a few minutes before you reach the famous pancake rocks. We chose to walk a 2 hour return track along the Pororari River, which is a great track. You can walk up to a swing bridge and just return on the same path. If you didn’t know where you are, you could believe you were in Southeast Asia due to the large rocks and palm trees along the river. It was even beautiful on a cloudy day and I think it would be even better on a sunny day. After the trail walk, we drove 5 more minutes down south to the Pancake Rocks and Blowholes, one of the first things you might think about when talking about New Zealand’s West Coast. There is a well maintained path that guides you through the different lookouts with great views of the pancake rocks. If you are lucky enough and you go there during high tide, there might be sea water splashing through the blow holes. After eating the mandatory pancake meal in the Pancake Rocks Cafe, we continued driving south to Greymouth. We stayed the night at the Central Park Camping so we were within walking distance of the Monteith’s Brewery, which had been recommended by our flatmate back in Auckland. The campground is just a simple parking lot behind a gas station with showers, toilets, a little lounge and even washing machines and dryers. It’s a perfect $25 camping spot, if you want to spend the evening in the city and have a few drinks. The Monteith’s Brewery sells delicious food and good beer and even offers brewery tours if you are interested.
We left the campground around 10 am with Franz Josef Glacier as our destination. If you have a nice sunny day, there is a 45 minutes detour (one way) to the Hokitika Gorge. You can do a 15 minute walk there and enjoy excellent views of the blue-green waters of the Hokitika River as it makes its way through the rock sided Hokitika Gorge.
We chose the Rainforest Retreat Campground in Franz Josef Village for the next two nights. They have beautiful camping sites in the middle of the rainforest, a nice restaurant and a spa pool and sauna as well. The showers and kitchen facilities are pretty good and we really enjoyed our stay. After we arrived, we strolled through the village and looked for different companies that offer helicopter rides. Unfortunately, the weather was too cloudy and rainy to do a helicopter ride, so we only explored the glaciers on foot. Read more about the glaciers and west cost over here.
The route to the next destination, Wanaka, will guide you through stunning landscapes. Because of the bad weather we couldn’t see the whole beauty during the drive but, even with clouds, it was great. We would recommend taking a whole day for this part of the itinerary because there are lots of little things to explore or take a picnic break on your way to Wanaka. Many waterfalls, pools and lookouts worth a visit. Just to name a few: Ship Creek, Billy Falls, Thunder Creek Falls, Fantail Falls, Haast Pass Lookout, Blue Pools Walk. As soon as you reach Lake Wanaka and Lake Hawea you have to drive extra carefully and concentrate on the street since the scenery is stunning. Better drive a bit slower and stop at the different lookouts to be safe. We visited the i-site when we arrived and learned that there is also a Department of Conservation Info center in town to get to know more about the current hiking track conditions in the area. We chose to stay at the Wanaka Kiwi Holiday Park, a great Campground with a nice view at the mountain scenery and great facilities including spa and sauna and free unlimited wifi. Read more about Wanaka and the region here.
After leaving Wanaka and the area, we headed to Queenstown, the Adventure-City. On our way to the city, we made a little stop at Kawarau Bungy Bridge for our first ever bungy jump, the must do highlight in Queenstown. We continued driving through Queenstown, at first for a coffee stop and drove further to Glenorchy. We chose to stay one night in the beautiful nature around Lake Wakatipu and spend the night at Camp Glenorchy Eco Resort, which is really worth a visit. After exploring the area around Glenorchy the next day, we drove back to Queenstown where we checked in to the Queenstown Holiday Park & Motel Creeksyde. We spend 3 nights in Queenstown and explored different cool things in the city, like the skyline gondola, riding the luge, and exploring the little cafes, shops and garden at the lake. Want to know more about Glenorchy and Queenstown? Read this.
Our next destination was Milford Sound. It is one of many different and the most visited Sounds in Fiordland. With 200 days of rain during the year it is one of the most rainy parts of New Zealand. The drive from Queenstown to Milford Sound is about 287 km long and google maps says you would need 3h 44 min, but if you drive on your own, we recommend taking some more time and plan a whole day for the drive since there is lots to see on the way. We spent two nights in Milford Sound at the Milford Sound Lodge, the only Campsite in Milford Sound. However, there are many different ways how to explore the Milford Sound so read more about visiting this part of the Fiordland here.
We continued driving to the east coast and towards Dunedin. To extend the itinerary you could visit Invercargill & Bluff and also the southernmost point of the South Island. Dunedin is home to the oldest university in New Zealand which is why many students live there. Initially we wanted to stay in Dunedin for two nights but luckily we checked the weather forecast for our next destination, Mount Cook, which turned out to be only sunny the following 3 days and would turn into a rainy week after that. That’s why we only stayed one night in Dunedin and continued driving to Mount Cook right away.
On the way from Dunedin to Mount Cook you can explore the Moeraki Boulders at the beach and a Penguin Colony in Oamaru. On the way you will drive through great valleys with blue lakes and mountains around you. The last part, when you reach Lake Pukaki is particularly amazing. We decided to stay at the Glentanner Holiday Park, which is a 20 minutes drive away from Mount Cook Village. It is the only powered campsite in that area and you get 10% off a helicopter flight with Helicopter Line when you stay at least one night there. You can do awesome hikes around Mount Cook and explore many places of natural beauty, which was the main reason we went there. Leaving the Holiday Park it is a 50 minutes drive to another great place, Lake Tekapo. It is mainly known for its beautiful Lake, the Church of the Good Shepherd and the Dark Sky Project. We stayed two nights at the Lake Tekapo Motels & Holiday Park, with a nice lakeview and within walking distance of the small town. You want to know more about Mount Cook and Lake Tekapo? Read here.
Our next stop was Christchurch, where we wanted to sell our van. We stayed at the Amber Kiwi Holiday Park & Motel which was a small but very welcoming and cosy holiday park with nice flowers and plants and good kitchen and bathroom facilities. After visiting Christchurch we decided to spend two nights in Akaroa, a 1h 20 min drive from Christchurch. What a beautiful area. Read more about Christchurch and Akaroa here.
If you intend to drive a full circle and back to the Picton Ferry Terminals, we would highly recommend having a stop at Kaikoura to see their famous Seal Colony or book a Whale Watching tour. If you would like to lie back after your long trip and end your journey in a relaxed mood, you can have a little detour to Hamner Springs and enjoy their spa and thermal springs.