Christchurch > Tekapo > Mount Cook > Wanaka > Fox Glacier > Queenstown > Arrowtown
Driving through the rich landscape of New Zealand’s, South Island is like glimpsing a freshly painted canvas on every turn you take. Vast snowy capped mountains, enchanting green forests, a verdant oasis covering the lower rolling valleys, golden grass and a scattering of white sheep, depict a perfectly painted picture. The scenery is just magical and leaves you feeling at one with nature.
I had heard and seen a lot about the South Island of New Zealand but nothing can quite prepare you for the astonishing beauty, picture perfect, scenery that presents itself to you and makes you feel a ease in its vastness.
By far the best way to travel the South Island of New Zealand is by camper van. Without one I believe you would miss out on seeing some of the most beautiful remote parts of the island. I have to say I’m not a camper, I needed some convincing from my husband. However, I’m so glad I changed my mind because the scenery I saw will stay with me forever.
We booked our camper van ahead of our trip to South Island with Mighty Campers. Part of their package, and which many companies offer, is a pickup from the airport and drop off at the depot. We headed eagerly to the pickup point on landing in Christchurch, we had a little bit of a wait but soon we were collected and swiftly escorted to Mighty’s warm depot lounge. With all the paperwork filled out we got the keys to our home for the next week. A sleek, white, rather large Mercedes motor home, furnished with all the mod cons to make our stay comfortable. We purchased ‘the bundle’ package for an extra $10.00 per day, which includes; linen exchange, picnic table + chairs, and portable fan heater. Although it was only the first month of Autumn, South Island has very changeable temperatures, dependant on where you go, and at times we were glad to have the extra heater.
We had planned our route before setting off on our journey across South Island, which I highly recommend doing. The island is a lot bigger than you imagine and it would be easy to misjudge the length of time you need between each destination. We first travelled from Christchurch following Highway 1 before heading across on 79 and then 8 to Lake Tekapo.
Christchurch is a rather sad and fairly desolate city in comparison to how it used to be, I’m told. Unfortunately, a number of earthquakes, the biggest being in 2011, devastated the city and there has been an ongoing restoration project ever since. I believe there is a way to go before the city is returned to how it used to be, not to deter you from visiting, just don’t have high expectations.
After a rather dreary overnight stay in a freedom camp spot somewhere outside of Ashburton, we hit the road and headed across to Lake Tekapo. Something that struck me was the sheer beauty of the landscape, as you move away from the small villages and into the mountainous region. Its almost like you enter a new world, where the sun shines over the top of snow capped mountains and you can see every blade of grass glisten as the warm breeze glides across it. Of course the sun is not shining all year round, but the contrast is quite amazing and will still leave you in awe.
Lake Tekapo, the second largest of three lakes in South Island, is the first of our road trip. The water is a stunning aqua blue, flawlessly clear so that the surrounding mountains are perfectly reflected. I ran, half tripped over my feet in a rush to get down to the water and dip my toes. Finding the nearest large rock, I lay back and soaked up the afternoon sun whilst reminiscing about our travels so far and the journey ahead of us.
Not wanting to miss a good camping spot, we hit the road after lunch and headed to the largest of South Islands lakes, Lake Pukaki. Its just under an hours drive from Lake Tekapo along route 8 following the most beautiful mountainous landscape. As we pulled into The Pines, Lake Pukaki Freedom Camping, it was clear we would need to be quick picking a prime spot overlooking the lake. Whilst it didn’t get really busy, it is one of the top attractions, so I recommend arriving late afternoon setting up camp and heading down to the water for a dip.
Lake Pukaki is fed by the Hooker Glaciers and offers some of the most spectacular views of Mount Cook, which is perfectly reflected in its clear waters. Quickly changing into my swimming costume, I headed down to the waters edge. Before I’d had a chance to sample the water a German lady waded in from the shore. What followed was a list of profanities and squeals as she lowered herself slowly into the water, before finally taking the plunge and fully immersing herself. She then turned to me, as if I had not just witnesses her protests, and sweetly said ‘its great’. I fell about laughing and obviously told her I didn’t believe a word. It then took me a good half an hour to finally sample the water for myself. Some of the coldest water I have ever swam in but also the most unforgettable.
The lake and the views of Mount Cook aren’t the only lure of this location. After settling down for the night, we opened the curtains of our camper to admire the uninterrupted views of the night sky. The milky way clearly visible above us, as well as distant star clusters and planets. Lake Pukaki is part of the Mackenzie region, one of the best locations in the world for star gazing, due to almost no light pollution. If star gazing is something you really love then there are several tours and Mount John Observatory in the area, where you can see and hear about everything in much more detail.
“to put it simply, it is one of the best stargazing sites on earth,” Bob Parks, Executive Direct of the International Dark-Sky Association.
The next morning we’re up early and on the road towards Mount Cook, which had been on the top of our list when planning our trip. 1 hours drive from the camp spot we pulled up to Hooker Valley. After speaking to some other tourists and grabbing a guide from the local information centre we headed to the start of Hooker Valley track. A 3hr return trek gently ascending 80m over 5k.
I cannot express enough how stunning this trek is, the scenery is some of the most incredible I have ever seen. The terrain is rugged and undulating, made up of ice and rock and a mixture of vivid greens from the alpine tussock. The meandering path passes along 3 swing bridges suspended over the fast flowing Hooker River with views of Mueller Lake. You’ll pass two view points, the Alpine Memorial and Freda’s Rock (the first woman to climb Mount Cook), and beautiful views of Mount Cook, Hooker Glacier and the Southern Alps. I was constantly reaching for my camera during the walk, wanting to capture the sheer beauty that greeted us on every turn. The final lookout point brings you to Hooker Glacier which offers unobstructed views of Mount Cook. We were mesmerised by the topography of the glacier, with floating icebergs jutting out from unusual angles from the bluish, milky grey water and the enormity of Mount Cook.
Needing to power up for the evening we headed down from Mount Cook towards Lake Wanaka to Glendhu Bay Motor Camp. Perched on the edge of the lake, this campsite is by far the best of the bunch. We used Campermate during our trip and Glendhu stood out as the best amongst a bad bunch, with an abundance of glowing reviews.
Back on the road after another early start we followed route 6 up to Fox Glacier, another of South Islands gems. The dramatic scenery of brilliant blue lakes and mountainous terrain will leave you awe struck, there really is no other place like it. The more we drove around the more we fell in love with the country, if only it weren’t so far away.
On route we stopped to admire Thunder Creek Falls along HAAST highway, a must see waterfall in Mt Aspiring National Park. Also a welcome break after an hour and a half on the road. The waterfall is just 10 minutes walk from the carpark. The water shots from a small opening in the forest canopy and impressively thunders down almost 100metres below into the Haast River. Its extremely photogenic especially from the graveyard of stacked rocks, left by fellow tourists.
Fox Glacier is named after New Zealand’s former Prime Minister Sir William Fox. It descends from the Southern Alps into the humid, wet rainforests 300m below. There are many options for tours to the Glacier; walks, hikes and flights. As we’re were on a budget and spreading our cash across several different countries we opted for the short 1hr Fox Glacier Valley Walk. The scenery surrounding the glacier is truly dramatic and moon like in appearance. Vast rocky mountains thrust up either side creating a deep valley in which the Fox River flows. 5 minutes into the walk you can already see the distant site of Fox Glacier, if the weather is not overcast. The gravel track continues, crossing small creeks before sharply ascending to the viewing platform.
We were a little disappointed by the view, which was obstructed by the descending clouds. Looking at photos of the glacier you can see that it has dramatically retreated as it’s now barely visible from the path. I would well recommend, if you have the budget for it, to take a helicopter ride over the glacier for perfect views and a chance to hike across the Glacier’s.
Close to Fox Glacier is Lake Matheson, which on a clear day perfectly reflects views of Aoraki/Mount Cook and Mount Tasman. We arrived on a slightly overcast grey day, however the reflection was still mirrored on the still water. For me the high light was walking along the forest track, which winds its way around the lake. High moss covered walls enclose the path, ferns scattered along the lower canopy and tall rimu and kahikatea trees cover the upper canopy creating an enchanting setting.
Queenstown, New Zealand was next on our hit list, a 4hr drive from Lake Matheson. It’s renowned for its adventure sports and having heard about the jet boat tours we were keen to give that a go. We booked our jet boat trip through bookme, which offers great discounts throughout New Zealand and is a necessity for any traveller. After tackling crown range road, a less daunting and dangerous route than Skippers Canyon, named as New Zealand’s most dangerous road, we came into Queenstown. The vibe of this city is young and fun, a backpackers dream. A complete contrast to Christchurch.
We boarded our boat at 4pm with ThunderJet and straight away we knew we were in for a great ride. Levi, our guide, stepped on with an air of cool about him, instantly making us all feel at ease and laughing before we set off. Switching on some pumping tracks, we headed out onto Lake Wakatipu, set against the dramatic landscape of The Remarkables. It creates an impressive and dramatic backdrop against the dark blue waters of the lake.
Out of the harbour we did our first practise 360 spin, totally exhilarating and so much fun. Levi promised us many more during our 1hr long trip down the Kawarau River. Hitting the acceleration we cruised down the Frankton Arm, the landscape playing scene to many of the Lord of the Rings movies. The jet boats reach up to 60mph and due to the design of them they can travel through very shallow water. As we neared Kawarau Falls Bridge towards one of the very narrow arches we all took a deep inhale and let out screams as we passed through, against the rapids of the river. We then glided down the river with the occasional instructions from Levi indicating the next 360 spin coming up or stopping to tell us about the history of the area. In total the trip covers an adrenalin packed 47km, passing some of the most picturesque views in Queenstown.
Our camp spot for the night was Queenstown Holiday Park & Motels Creeksyde, a 5 minute walk from the town centre. As well as its proximately to town it particularly appealed to me due to its environmental accolades.
“In 2012 we became the world’s first holiday park to achieve EarthCheck’s highest accolade of Platinum Certification for our 10 years’ commitment to implementing world-class green initiatives.” Queenstown Holiday Park & Motels Creeksyde
The next morning we made a short drive to the cute little village Arrowtown, an historic gold mining town. Buckingham Street has a feeling of stepping back in time and into a western. The street is lined with procession of heritage house shops, galleries, bars, and restaurants. Halfway down the high street, tucked down a small alleyway we found, The Chop Shop Food Merchants, which had come highly recommend by my sister. A vintage coffee shop/restaurant offering a unique range of foods, from Japanese, Turkish, traditional, sushi and many more delicious dishes. I tucked into a Japanese pancake, packed full of flavour and worthy of an Instagram shot. The whole vibe of the restaurants is worlds away from the setting it is in, adding a slice of the modern to Arrowtown.
Wanting to explore more of the surrounding area we hired two bikes and headed out of Arrowtown towards AJ Hackett Bungy Kawarau Bungy Centre. We rode through the woods and out into the vast autumnal landscape; oranges, reds, auburns and bright greens against a brilliant blue, perfect sky. The sounds of screams and cheers indicated we were near to the bungy jumping spot and sure enough, as we came around the bend we caught sight of one of the jumpers. It’s a strange experience watching bungy jumping, it gives you this sense of confidence and after a while you find yourself lured into giving it a go. I had this feeling but not enough to take the plunge, however for one girl the lure was enough to get strapped up and stand on the edge. At this point her senses kicked in and after two failed attempts and with her heart almost visibly pumping out of her chest she was carried away and released back onto solid ground. Of course there were many more jumpers, confidently walking to the edge and with no nervousness jumping clear of the bridge. AJ Hackett Bungy is the birthplace of bungy jumping and has a 100% success record, making it one of the safest places to try bungy in the world.
That evening in search of some more adrenaline filled experiences, we headed towards Skyline Gondola and Luge. The views travelling up the gondola are second to none and give a whole new prospective to Lake Wakatipu and the surrounding mountains. After purchasing our tickets, we grabbed our helmets and took a ride up the chair lift to the luge. After 1 practise run we were let loose on the advanced red route, steeper with banked corners, tunnels, dippers and cuttings. The tag line ‘once is never enough,’ is so true. We went up and down a good 4 times, completely high on energy and excitement.
The end of our trip to South Island was just as spectacular as the start, with our flight route particular the take off, being voted as one of the most spectacular views in the world. The scenery really is uniquely beautiful and leaves an ever lasting impression on you that is hard to shake off. I have New Zealand firmly imprinted in my memory and it will forever hold a special place for me. If you’re planning a holiday and you want adventure, beautiful natural surroundings, water, sun, sea and surf then New Zealand ticks all those boxes.
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