NZ How To: Drive the South Island in Two Weeks
Updated: Nov 23, 2018
Outside of other vanlifers, the people we met the most in New Zealand were short-term travellers. Often these people were in the country for less than a month, had to stick to a vigorous driving schedule, and were very selective about where to go. Now I would never recommend planning a trip this way, and would like to stress to anyone out there who is still in the planning process that New Zealand is much larger than you think. However, people have jobs, budgets, families, and visas so the quick spin around the country will continue to happen, and because of that I bring you the Advantures Outside driving guide to two weeks on the South Island!
Nb: The entire route diagramed in the image above will take around 50 hrs (not including detours) to drive. I have pointed out side trips that can be skipped in favour of more exploration in other areas if desired.
I am beginning this guide in Christchurch, but it is easy to start at the Picton ferry terminal, down in Queenstown, or anywhere between instead. Since this trip brings us back to Christchurch (1), lets jump right in and drive north to Kaikoura (2). Kaikoura was hit hard by earthquakes in the past few years, and the road out is still under construction so give yourself a bit of extra time to get there. This also means accommodation is limited, so if you’d like to stay the night, book ahead.
On the Way To Kaikoura:
Take a detour into Gore Bay for a picnic lunch on the beach. Don’t forget to stop by the Cathedral Cliffs for a quick photo.
To Do in Kaikoura:
Wildlife tours. The sharp underwater drop off of the Kaikoura canyon attracts whales, and a whole raft of other sea life.
Ohau stream and waterfall. Walk in and watch seal pups frolic here just after breading season.
Mt Fyfe. A straightforward 3 hr walk straight up into the mountains behind Kaikoura. There is a hut at the top, and options to take a multi-day hike through the Kakoura ranges.
From Kaikoura continue north through Blenheim (3), Picton (hello ferry people), and Nelson, where you will have the option to head out to Farewell Spit (4) at the very north of the island. I highly recommend heading out to the spit, it is one of the most unique landscapes in the country. If you chose to drive up there, stop in Takaka first and check out one of their great food joints, hostels, or just take in the funky town.
On the Way to Takaka:
Split Apple Rock. This unique island feature is found just past the city of Motueka.
Abel Tasman National Park. Golden beaches, and Tourquoise water. This park can be accessed from either south of Takaka (most accessible) or from the north (stunning views) or hiked through as a great walk.
Since this is about as far north as possible, head south to Greymouth (6). This drive passes both Kahurangi National Park and Nelson Lake National Park. Both of these parks offer stunning day hikes, well-known overnights, and incredibly remote challenging multi-day tramps. If these are your thing, plan to stop for a few days in this area. On this drive, you will also have the chance to detour up to Karamea (5) to see the Oparara Basin. The natural arches, caves, and dark tannin-filled streams out here are incredible to explore, and the weka are extra cheeky. There is not much out here other than nature and sandflies though, so it may not be for everyone. Karamea is where the Heaphy Track starts.
On the Way to Greymouth:
Hike Mt Arthur. The drive up to the Flora Carpark is not for the faint of heart (or old of vehicle) but it puts you fairly close to the open tops of Kahurangi Park, and a plethora of huts and rock bivvys.
Lake Rotoroa. Even if you aren’t into big long hikes, pop into the national park at the edge of St. Arnauds for beautiful views.
Hokitika. A cute little town on the west coast known for art and beautiful ocean views. See if you can find some jade at the river mouth.
Punakaiki Pancake Rocks. If the tide is on its way in, you might even see the blowhole perform.
Monteiths Brewery. Greymouth is the home of these tasty brews, tours and tastings.
From Greymouth, cut back over to the east coast via Arthurs Pass. Be aware that Arthurs Pass has had some vehicle break-ins over the years, so keep valuables and bags out of sight. From this direction Arthurs Pass is quite steep, and chains may be required in the winter.
*To save some driving later, you might chose to skip the pass, and head straight down the west coast. Both are beautiful, but Arthurs pass has a few more unique opportunities along it. Don’t worry though, we will still get to the west.
On The Way to Akaroa:
Cave Stream. Hike through a cave created by a stream running through it. This is a nice weather only activity, as the stream can rise with the rain.
Castle Hill. It’s possible to spend hours exploring these cool formations.
Once over the pass, head out to Akaroa (7) and the Banks Peninsula. This is a common holiday place for locals, and a port for cruise ships, so don’t be surprised it it’s busy.
What to Do in Akaroa:
Wildlife tours. Spend some serious time with penguins, seals, and more.
Get Fish & Chips at Murphey’s. They have locations on the dock, and on the corner, and serve an amazing grilled salmon with chips.
Onawe Pa. A beautiful, serene walk only accessible at low tide.
From Akaroa, head south. There are two route options here, either continue along the coast to Geraldine (and stop to taste some cheese and preserves) or head inland a bit to Ashburton where there are some beautiful trails to explore on Mt Somers, and equally beautiful lakes in the valleys. Either way, at Geraldine head inland to Lake Tekapo (8), and brace yourself for tourists. Drive around Tekapo, and then along Lake Pouaki. Both of these lakes have a lovely scenic and quiet drive along their east banks if you are looking for a nice lunch or sunset spot. This is a dark sky preserve, so if you have a clear night stay and stargaze. From Lake Pouaki, turn onto the Road to Aoraki/Mt Cook National Park (9).
What To Do in Mt Cook:
Hooker Valley Track. One of the most rewarding easy walks in the park. Get on the trail before 9am to avoid the crowd.
Mueller Hut. Enjoy stairs? This trail is for you. Book ahead to stay in the famous Mountaintop hut.
Lake Ohau. Just past Twizel, on your way out of the park is one of the most beautiful lakes to swim in or photograph.
Drive down to Wanaka (10), and take in (or drive along) the massive dams shaping the waterways here. I recommend parking yourself in Wanaka for a few days as a central location. I’ve recommended driving up to the west coast from here. This is a long drive, and would be best as an overnight trip, but would take you through the neck, which is gorgeous. I would also recommend choosing either Fox or Franz Josef Glacier (11) to visit, as they are quite similar.
What To Do in Wanaka:
Roy’s Peak. You’ve probably seen the pictures, now get one for yourself.
Rob Roy Glacier. It’s not too far to drive into Aspiring National Park, and the Rob Roy Glacier Track makes for a great daytrip. The park offers lots of longer trails as well.
That Wanaka Tree. It has its own hashtag, that’s how famous it is.
On The Way To Fox Glacier:
Ships Point. Beautiful beach, swamp, and forest trails, and a wonderful lunch stop.
Lake Matheson. If you are lucky enough to get good weather on the west coast, head out to Lake Matheson for perfect mountain reflections.
*as you can get to the west coast through either Wanaka or Greymouth, choose the one that coincides with the better weather. While the forests are nice in the rain, the real views shine on a clear day.
Leaving Wanaka, take the crown pass to Queenstown (if you’ve been following this guide in reverse the Q-town side is VERY steep) don’t forget to shift into low gear for the descent. If you want to avoid this pass, there is an alternative route through Cromwell. Cromwell is one of the biggest producers of stone fruit in New Zealand, so grab a (very tasty) snack on your way through, and stop in at Benjer Juice company for some local creations. Queenstown (12) is where the adrenaline activities happen, so if you haven’t gotten your bungee or skydive in yet, this is the place to find the more unique ones. (If you’re on a budget, a skydive is much cheaper elsewhere).
What to do in Queenstown:
Ben Lomond. A challenging hike up, or take the gondola part way and then walk.
Explore the Ski fields. Even in the summer, these are beautiful places to wander and explore.
Moke Lake. Just outside of Queenstown, a beautiful place to camp, walk, or just watch reflections.
Drive out to Glenorchy. An easy day trip and beautiful drive with tons of stops on the way. Once there you can head out to some great multi-day hikes, just be aware that you will need to cross fords on some of the roads.
Our next leg is optional but recommended, and takes us out to Te Anau and Milford Sound (13). This is a long, beautiful, windy drive. There are options to take a bus or flight out from Queenstown. There are very few shops past Te Anau, so stock up there first (and maybe head to the DOC site to see some takahe being fed). From Te Anau you can hop on a boat and head to Doubtful Sound or drive out to Milford. At either location the best way to see the sites is by water, so find a boat tour or a kayak rental and don’t forget to check ‘BookMe’ or ‘Grab One’ for discounts.
On The Way to Milford Sound:
Hike Key Summit. A quick hike up the start of the Routeburn Track to a wonderful view of the valley below.
Head back towards civilization, and then down south to the Catlins (14)There is the option to drive via Gore or to take a detour to Invercargill. If you choose the latter, stop in at the I-site to see the Tuatara breading centre, and at the Invercargill brewery which is my personal favourite micro-brewery in the country. If you have time, pop down to Bluff to see the “south of the south” sign, or even jump on a boat and explore Stewart Island.
What To Do In The Catlins:
Dolphin and penguin spotting. You can watch dolphins surf the waves, and hunt for little blue penguins and yellow eyed penguins in the evening.
Waterfall chasing. There are a ton of waterfalls down here, but I recommend Koropuku Falls because the trail was made by 2 guys who really love the area.
Nugget Point. A lovely coastal walk, with an aerial view of sea lions, seals, spoonbills and more.
Gypsy Caravan. This fun caravan is full of intricate homemade machines that are a joy to watch and play with.
Leaving the Catlins we hit the home stretch, and start heading north along the coast to Dunedin. Dunedin is a university town, and is full of street art and fun events.
What To Do In Dunedin:
The Dunedin Museum. Most of the exhibits are free, and all of them are wonderful.
Drive the Otago Peninsula. This thin bit of land is full of fun places to explore, and little almost private beaches. At the very tip is the Albatross centre which is worth a visit even if you aren’t taking a tour. If you are lucky you will spot a Royal Albatross gliding over the carpark without even spending a dime.
Continue the drive north and stop in Moreaki to see the famous boulders on your way to Oamaru. I recommend spending the night in Oamaru, as there are two great penguin watching spots (morning and night) to explore. Oamaru has a super interesting history and has since turned into a steampunk mecca.
What To Do In Oamaru:
Visit the Steampunk Museum. Dress up in themed clothes, immerse yourself in the exhibit, and maybe even talk to the creator of the machines.
Visit the Botanical Gardens. Huge and beautiful themed gardens to wander or picnic in.
Penguin watch. See the Little blue penguins arrive home at night, and watch the yellow-eyed penguins head out to sea in the early morning.
The final drive back to Christchurch can be taken either straight up the coast or via Ashburton (and Mt. Somers) whichever you didn’t do before. When you arrive in Christchurch explore the city, take some time for the earthquake memorials, and see how much damage remains. Finally, stop into Harrington’s brewery for a tasting and to relax after your journey.
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