Driving the scenic roads of New Zealand’s south island

It is “Aotearoa” to native Maori people. It is New Zealand to rest of us. Regardless of the name we choose to call this land, it is a country of unparalleled pristine beauty – a nation of lush green rainforests, rugged mountains, crystal blue lakes, glaciers and picturesque coastlines. It is also a land of adventure activities and friendly people who are outnumbered by snuggly sheep. Those fluffy animals were dotting the farms as we drive towards Te Anau.

It was our second time at Te Anau, a gateway to Fiordland National Park. Last time we were here to hike the Routeburn trail and this time to walk Milford trail, with two days break at Queenstown in between.

Queenstown, a vibrant town carved by glaciers, rivers, and lakes and defined by innovative adventurers. Queenstown, the adventure capital of the world. Queenstown, the birthplace of commercial bungy jumping. Queenstown, a town of my dreams, ever since I read about it in the newspaper, the time before world wide web.

It was precisely how I always imagined I would feel looking down at the Kawarau gorge from 43 meters. It was the very platform, where I dreamt of standing on one day. With arms stretched to the side, I could listen to adrenaline coursing through my blood, my heart thumping hard and every muscle taut. I peered suspiciously one more time, took a deep breath, and jumped. I plummeted down, down, down, the air snagged on my thoughts. My heart leaped and came up my throat. The river was getting closer real fast. Then, the elastic cord pulled me away from the river just for a few seconds before dropping down again. That moment I let go of everything, I was free, I was alive. There are more than 200 meters high bungy jumping, and Kawarau had always fascinated me the most. 

 

I spent crisp autumnal three weeks sampling New Zealand with my family by driving and hiking. We spent a majority of our time on the south island. Highway 6 or West Coast Road was a perfect choice to experience a stunning blend of geographical and wildlife in the remoteness of the south island. We had planned to take highway 6 to Queenstown, continue on 94 to Te Anau, back to Queenstown and then drive highway 8 and 1 to reach our destination Christchurch.

We rented a little blue car at Nelson, loaded it with backpacks, our two energetic kids, snacks, and water for the road. Navjot assumed his place behind the wheel (I am not comfortable driving a manual car, that too on the wrong side) and I, the official spotter sat happily in the passenger seat. Highway 6 like most of New Zealand roads, is one lane either direction with no median. Navjot was supposed to pay attention to the winding and crooked road, and I was supposed to look outside and spot safe places to pull over and stop to absorb the beauty.

We had about 6 hours long drive today to reach Franz Josef town, which we arrived in the dark of night, tired and happy. The incredibly beautiful scenery of New Zealand to solely to blame for our late arrival. I will recommend stopping at Greymouth if you are not pressed for the time like us.

Once we reached Westport, it was tough to contain my excitement and help Navjot focus on the road. Steep limestone cliffs on our right side and rugged beaches assaulted by crashing waves of the Tasman Sea on the left, it was indeed breathtaking.

It is a difficult task to balance your time and stops you make, Cape Foulwind Seal Colony, Pancake Rocks at Punakaiki and a walk down to the ocean should be considered. We did not have time to visit Seal Colony. We had a relaxed breakfast Nelson, pulled over a lot, and enjoyed one of the best sunsets at Pancake Rocks and Blowholes.

Pancake Rocks are exactly what their name suggests, towering stacks of limestone on top of one another to give a “pancake” effect that has been formed gradually by the wind and water over the years to their current shape. This layered effect makes for a sight that’s both unusual and impressive.

We hiked around to see all the four blowholes, each of them with their unique quality. Sudden Sound Blowhole makes a cacophonous noise as the sea rushes through, while the Devil’s Cauldron is a wide, circular, the Chimney Pot Blowhole shoots water spray through the air like smoke due to its narrow channel, and the big one Putai creates the most significant spray of all.

The rhythmic nature of the landscape is both impressive and hypnotic, as the waves continually crash against the rocks, the jets spout, and the process repeats itself continually until the tide retreats.

On the road again, with the sun gone, it started getting darker, and we started getting hungry. We stopped at Hokitika for dinner and soon it was hushed in the car with kids asleep. I tried unsuccessfully to make sense of the Japanese instructions on our car’s dashboard to put on some music to help Navjot stay awake. We made it safe and sound to Franz Josef town.

It was mind-blowing to see all the scenery we missed the night before. Franz Josef town is a charming town with one of the best coffee. We loaded up with delicious breakfast and drove to the glaciers, Fox and Franz Josef glaciers, just ~5 km from our hotel.

These glaciers are the only two that penetrate as far as the lower rainforests. The Franz Josef is the higher of the two and is also steeper on average. The Fox Glacier is lower and about 2 km longer, accessible for most travelers by a short hike or by air.

There are many choices for glacier tours, depending on the duration and your budget. We did not want to spend money for the heli-tour for four of us and glacier walk was ruled out due to age limit (Our son, Laddu did not cut it), another reason to go back to New Zealand!

Left with only one option, we hiked up to Sentinel Rock to get a better view of Franz Josef Glacier. We went back to the town for one more coffee for the road.

Our next stop was Knights Point Lookout to capture stunning coastline from the top. We were not ready to leave west coast yet, and kids wanted to spend more time here. We stopped soon again to hike down the beach. Kids had a wonderful time frolicking on the sand, while just like any typical parent were busy taking their photos.

We debated to stop at Haast Visitor Center and decided to give it a try, which turned out to be a right decision. Besides architecturally pleasing building, it has an impressive collection of exhibits. It was a great place for kids to learn about glaciers. From here highway 6 turned inland, leaving behind the coastline, it was time to get awestruck by New Zealand waterfalls.

We hiked to Roaring Billy Falls, and Thunder Creek Falls through temperate rainforest, with thick vegetation, giant ferns and bright green moss covering almost everything. It was a walk in the Jurassic Park. Fantail Falls were very close to the road, no reason not to stop over.

Next came two ridiculously gorgeous glacial lakes – Lake Wanaka and Lake Hawea, before reaching Wanaka. Wanaka is a baby brother of Queenstown on the shore of a glacial lake.  Funky, cozy cafes and restaurants with pretty lake views, line the main street, a perfect place to make your tummy and heart happy. I was introduced to the unforgettable taste of beetroot relish while devouring the best burger of my life at Red Star Burger. Navjot and Laddu claimed that Big Fig’s lamb had blown away their taste buds. We dedicated our time in Wanaka to kids and visited the Puzzle World, an ultimate place to take your kids while in town. It has multi-level, outdoor ‘Super Maze,’ where I think we had more fun than the kids. Inside, it has an incredible collection of Illusion Rooms, where our senses were tricked unbelievably. It ended up being a fun-filled day for kids and us alike.

We drove around east arm of Lake Wakatipu, before reaching Garston, the most inland town in New Zealand. Driving through the farmlands speckled with cows and sheep we reached Te Anau, a trailhead for the Routeburn trail. We had arranged with a company and found our car waiting for us when we finished Routeburn trail. Next stop, Queenstown!  

What an unforgettable fun-packed time we had in Queenstown in two days! Bungy jumping at Kawarau bridge, luge at Skyline, zip-line at Gondola hill and jet boat thrill tour on Shotover gorge. Navjot experienced the thrill of downhill mountain biking, while kids and I learned about kiwi and other birds at Kiwi Birdlife Park. At evenings, we strolled through the town, savored food, and soaked up Queenstown’s vibes.

Fully charged, with high spirits we were back at Te Anau to hike 4-day Milford trail. We made a quick pit stop at Queenstown, to get primed for Christchurch.

On the way, we stopped over for an educational tour benefitting chiefly Navjot and me. At Gibbston Valley Winery, we were enlightened about the winemaking process. They also feature an impressive selection of cheese, and we indulgenced in some of the red wines and cheese.

We took a detour to Mt. Cook village via the scenic Mount Cook drive. It follows the length of lake Pukaki all the way to Mount Cook National Park. Mt Cook is the tallest mountain in New Zealand, backyard of Sir Edmund Hillary, where he honed his climbing skills in preparation for the conquest of Everest. Clouds have been gathering since morning, and by the time we were at the village, they obscured Mt. Cook. We spent a couple of hours at Sir Edmund Hillary Alpine Centre getting inspired by one of the world’s greatest explorers. We did not catch a glimpse of Mt Cook that day. Another reason to come back to New Zealand.

We reached Christchurch at night when every restaurant was closed, cooked our backpacking leftover food and slept. Next morning we were shocked to see and feel the devastating impact of 2011 earthquake.  Huge gaps in the road, big cracks running down the buildings, ruins of  Christchurch’s famous cathedral and white chairs memorial were the brutal reminder of our fragility. On the hand, murals on cracked walls, art on the construction fences and container shopping were examples of human optimism and courage.

So, our drive around the south island came to an end, and it was time to say thanks to our trusty companion – our blue car with Japanese instructions. Oh yes, I did manage to switch on the radio by hit-and-trial, and never figured out how.

Useful Practical Information

Things to do and don’t while driving in New Zealand

Do – remember to drive on the left

They drive on the left here just like so many other Commonwealth members. Pay particular attention while making a turn, that’s where most of the left-right mess-up happens.

Do – pay attention to the weather

The weather in the south island can get intense. Follow local weather advisory and stay safe.

Do – remember your road manners

Keep your nice road manners in this friendly country, i.e., give a pass to faster cars, wave a thank you, when needed, maintain a decent distance and don’t honk.

New Zealand is photogenic, but you must fight the urge to pull over to take a photo on the side of the road. Find somewhere safe and pretty to pull over. Be mindful of pulling over.

Don’t – underestimate New Zealand roads

They are crooked and winding. Most importantly, they are one lane in either direction, with no big medians. Remote roads don’t even have guardrails adding extra adventure to your drive. The maximum speed limit is 100 kph (63 mph), which Kiwis take seriously, we got a speeding ticket for 110 kph!

Car Rentals

http://www.nzrentacar.co.nz/

https://www.omegarentalcars.com/

Road conditions

http://www.nzta.govt.nz/roads-and-rail/

https://www.aa.co.nz/travel/roadwatch/

Accommodations

We stayed in hostels to save money to spend on fun experiences. These were the main websites I used to find hostels and booked after checking the price directly with the hostel.

https://www.newzealand.com/

https://www.hostelworld.com/

It is an absolutely fascinating little island packed with amazing scenery, cute sheep, and about a million big smiling humans.

Happy travels!