Continuing Our Road Trip: New Zealand’s South Island
For the first two weeks of our month-long trip, we travelled from Auckland to the northern tip of Cape Reinga, and all the way down to Wellington. Travelling to New Zealand’s South Island from the North is easiest by plane, of course. But if you’re reading this article because you really are embarking on a road trip, your transfer is as easy as hopping on and hopping off one of the Cook Strait ferries from Wellington to Picton. As for your car rental, there are many rental options available, especially if you are starting in Auckland. The company we went with and would recommend is Apex Car Rentals, and there’s a very good reason. With certain conditions, Apex includes the Cook Strait Ferry ticket for your car in the rental price. The Cook Strait Ferries (there are a couple companies) take you from the North Island to the South Island, and vice-versa. Normally, you’re looking at a price of roughly $286 NZD for a small car, and with other rental companies, you would have to pay that.
Here are the details of the Apex Ferry deal, where you can also find the pricing information for the passenger fares (not included, but about $130 NZD return pp). You’ll need to book the ferry tickets ahead of time through Apex, so make sure you have your anticipated crossing dates on hand. If you don’t plan on crossing the strait, then you may find better deals with other companies that don’t include the ferry ticket.
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As we mentioned in our article about the North Island, the most helpful decision we made for our trip was to purchase Scott Cook’s NZ Frenzy North and South Island guidebooks. They are the perfect resource for planning a road-trip-less-travelled around New Zealand, including a bunch of stuff you won’t find in other guides. Consider buying the South Island guidebook through the link below. It doesn’t cost any extra, and a small percentage helps keep The Gays Abroad Travel Blog running!
Ohau Point Seal Colony
In the Kaikoura region of New Zealand’s South Island lie a couple of gems for sea lion encounters. Driving south from Picton on Highway 1, you’ll find the Ohau Point seal colony lookout just off the road. While it wasn’t an intimate encounter, we were able to capture some great shots of the seal colony below with the beautiful blue ocean behind them. In the same general vicinity, there is also the potential for an incredible – INCREDIBLE – seal experience. Find the trail to Ohau Waterfall and follow it to reach the waterfall basin. If you are lucky enough to be visiting at the right time, which is more likely in every season except Summer, you may come face to face with a huge group of seal pups playing frantically in the pool. We weren’t so lucky, so we made the trek for the waterfall alone. Find videos of the seal pups online if that’s also the unfortunate case for you.
The largest city of New Zealand’s South Island, Christchurch sits roughly halfway down its East coast. You may be familiar with stories of earthquakes in the early 2010s that struck this city and resulted in the demolition of hundreds of buildings. However, Christchurch has seen an unparalleled rebuilding effort that has sparked a steady and optimistic rebound in recent years. Don’t miss a visit to this historic city with a leisurely half-day stroll through the Botanic Gardens, or choose from some of the many parks and museums in town.
Forty-five minutes from the city of Christchurch is a small, historically french harbour town by the name of Akaroa. We took the beautiful, scenic drive to spend a couple of hours taking in the town and enjoying fresh-fried chips along the water. You can do the same or schedule a day tour from Christchurch. While in town, keep it simple with a visit to the museum and lunch (or dinner) at one of the waterfront restaurants. Or you can head for adventure with some kayaking, a bike tour, a wide range of walking tracks or even a dolphin-viewing cruise.
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This is the beautiful location and setting of Edoras from the Lord of the Rings trilogy. When you get there, it’s interesting to see that the movie must have played with the scale of the setting because, in reality, there is no way an entire village could sit atop Mount Sunday. But you should make the trip even if you don’t care about the movies. Mount Sunday exists in a secluded landscape and makes for an enjoyable visit, with incredible scenery and a nice, brief hike to the top for 360˚ of picture-perfect, panoramic views. Bring the camera!
Look at the photos below of Lake Tekapo and force yourself past the skepticism that’s telling you, ‘Those colours can’t be real. That has to be fake.” It’s real, folks. The blue of Lake Tekapo is so vibrant, we were surprised to see it almost perfectly matched the colour of Adamo’s t-shirt. Tekapo is serenely scenic with a golf course and horse trekking tours nearby. Don’t forget to take a walk to the nearby Church of the Good Shepherd to view the old (and still used!) Scottish church overlooking the lake.
In terms of size, the college town of Dunedin follows the city of Christchurch as the second-largest on New Zealand’s South Island. You know how bad weather can make or break a visit for you? Well that was Dunedin for us. We were barely there for a day and it was grey and wet for most of the time. We used that time to catch up on laundry and visit the city’s historic train station. On our way out of the city, we stopped at Baldwin Street, also known as the world’s steepest residential street. That may not sound like much, but the assent was no cake walk. We were amazed to see cars able to drive up such an incline.
Milford Sound (& Mirror Lake)
Who hasn’t heard of Milford Sound? It’s often cited as New Zealand’s top tourist destination, and with good reason. The drive there alone boasts some of the most spectacular landscape views, with interesting stops you can make along the way (like Mirror Lake). Milford Sound is considered one of the wettest inhabited areas in the world, so a visit without some rain would be lucky. We booked a morning kayak tour – with longer, full-day options available – and were surprised by the onslaught of sand flies as you step our of the car. However, once suited up and on the water, the flies completely disappear as you’re left with a fantastic, guided tour on the sound with some great photo ops and a short hike to Bowen Falls.
Milford Sound is quite far South on New Zealand’s South Island, so you’ll have to make your way down to Te Anau and then back North to the sound. Guidebooks cite Te Anau as the final opportunity to get gas before heading North – which we would highly recommend – but that’s something we failed to realize before reaching Milford on an empty tank. After an intense panic, we asked around until someone pointed us to the direction of a little-known, barely-there gas station with maybe one or two pumps. So don’t freak out if you forget to fill up, but we would highly discourage relying on this little secret as your first option.
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Looking at a map, New Zealand’s world-famous adventure mecca seems like it would be a short drive from Milford Sound. The problem is, there is no direct road connecting the two highly-visited spots. What should be 1.5-hours of driving ends up being about 4, since you need to head back down to Te Anau, then East, and finally North to Queenstown. But of course, in New Zealand fashion, the drive is damn pretty. The mountainside route heading into Queenstown will have you stopping every ten seconds for more and more pictures.
The one thing we wish is that Queenstown was a stop we made at the beginning of our trip. There is SO MUCH to do here – everything from rafting to skydiving and bungee-jumping – but because we were at three weeks of a four-week trip, we had already spent the majority of our budget and couldn’t justify another big expense. So what did we do? In addition to hiking up to the lookout atop Queenstown Hill, we went to a haunted house. Man, that’s embarrassing. Maybe we should omit that. We visited the centre of extreme sports and instead of going all-out for an experience-of-a-lifetime, we spent a chunk of our day waiting in line with a bunch of pre-teens. And it wasn’t even halloween!
Bendigo Ghost Town
The Bendigo Historic Reserve, also known as the Bendigo Ghost Town, is the ruins of an old gold mining town in the Otago region of New Zealand’s South Island. Here, you’ll find a bunch of ruins including those of a former school and hotel. There are a couple options for walking tracks but be extremely cautious, especially with children. Straying from the designated tracks runs the risk of encountering some of the numerous deep and dangerous mining shafts still in existence.
Fox is one of two major inland glaciers on the Western coast of New Zealand’s South Island, both considered some of the world’s most accessible. The glacier has been retreating for most of the last 100 years, so the walk you take through Fox Valley spans an area that was formerly ice. You can take guided walks that will bring you onto the actual glacier, or you can do like us, save some dinero, and walk the valley to the picturesque edge. Don’t just go for the glacier. The views of the valley as you turn back from the lookout are spectacular.
Hokitika Gorge Scenic Reserve
Two-and-a-half hours North along the Western coast is an incredibly relaxing spot called Hokitika. This reserve boasts blue-green waters surrounded by lush greenery amidst its rocky gorge. Several walking hikes are available in the area, including one to a lookout for a picturesque view down to the bridge and water below. Continue along the path to get to that same bridge and a close encounter with the water’s blue-green hues. If you have the time, look into the nearby kayaking trips that are said to be some of the world’s best.
Punakaiki, the site of the Pancake Rocks, is 1.5 hours North of Hokitika Gorge. If you are only visiting Hokitika for a walk, you can definitely make it to Punakaiki within the same day. Admittedly quite popular (there were more tourists than we expected), here you’ll find short, roadside walkways taking you to a lookout for viewing the Pancake Rocks, so named for the visible layering of the limestone. Further along the path is more to see, including a cove housing crashing waves which also create vertical blowholes, but only at high tide. We made sure to time our visit appropriately so that we ended up being there when the waves and impacts had the best visual effects.
Rawhiti Cave Hike
This is a hike so exhausting that it almost killed us. Not literally, but we’ve never been so destroyed by a climb. We trekked uphill through the bush and tress, step after step as if it would never end. We eventually reached the mouth of the cave where hundreds of thousands of stalactites hung from the ceiling. There is a set of stairs and short walkway that will take you a little further into the cave but superficial enough that you can see everything by daylight. Let’s be frank, this was cool, but if you’re not ok with the serious hike then it may not be worth it.
Finally, here is a smattering of miscellaneous photos from the many times we stopped along New Zealand’s South Island to take a walk along the beach. These weren’t like the hot, sandy beaches of NZ’s North Island, but they boast some of the most incredible views. All while the tide is low, of course!
As always, thank you to our readers from all over the world! Feel free to comment below and share some of your own stories about New Zealand’s South Island.
Safe and happy travels!
– Adamo & Joey
The Gays Abroad