Driving the scenic roads of New Zealand’s South Island
It is “Aotearoa” to native Maori people. It is New Zealand to the 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.
Planning our first visit to New Zealand was getting equally challenging as exciting, given that country has so much to offer and we were absolutely tempted to squeeze in as much as possible. After several family meetings, we decided to spend the majority of three crisp autumnal weeks at South Island tramping four of the ten Great Walks and driving the scenic roads down the west coast and then across the east coast to Christchurch.
We reached Auckland and spent the first five days on North Island. Ironically, our first Great Walk was on the water – four days canoeing on Wanganui River. It was certainly a wonderful start of our memorable kiwi experience, read Wanganui River for full details. After a day at Wellington, we flew towards South Island in a tiny 6-seater airplane.
A quaint coastal town Nelson, our starting point in South Island. It is the gateway to Abel Tasman National Park and we are headed for the second Great Walk, Abel Tasman Coast Track.
After four days of tramping at Abel Tasman, we returned to Nelson for a hot shower and to get ready for West Coast Drive (Highway 6). A perfect choice to experience a stunning blend of geographical and wildlife in the remoteness of the South Island.
Here is the recount of our scenic drives in South Island along with some pointers and recommendations. I hope you will enjoy it.
Nelson to Franz Josef Glacier (Day 1)
A hearty breakfast, little blue rented car, snacks, water, backpacks in the trunk, kids in the backseat, husband behind the wheel, and me happily in the passenger seat – all set to explore South Island. 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 passed birthplace of Ernest Rutherford, father of Nucleus Science and Nobel laureate soon after driving out of Nelson. A man of humble beginnings said, “I have broken the machine and touched the ghost of matter.” after splitting the atom.
Passing through farms and small towns about two hours later Highway 6 hugs the west coast and scenery becomes extremely dramatic. 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.
We had to skip Cape Foulwind in the interest of time. Though we pulled over a lot to take photos, admire the beauty, 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 arrived at Franz Josef town 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.
Franz Josef Glacier to Wanaka (Day 2)
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 coffees. We loaded up with delicious breakfast and drove to Franz Josef glacier, just ~5 km from our hotel.
Fox and Franz Josef 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 on the heli-tour for four of us and glacier walk was ruled out due to age limit (our son, Laddu needs some growing to do), another reason to go back to New Zealand!
Left with only one option, we took a short walk up to Sentinel Rock that emerged from beneath the glacier in 1865. It offers impressive views of Franz Josef Glacier and Waiho River.
Glaciers, coastline, rainforest, mountains, lakes – we were excited for the most beautiful drive today. It is only about 286 km to Wanaka a three-and-half-hour drive.
After a short stop at Fox Glacier, we headed towards Haast Pass. With lush native forest one side and the wild Tasman Sea on the other, the views are spectacular along this drive. We stopped to hike down the beach. Kids had a wonderful time chasing waves, while we took their photos to keep those moments forever.
Next, we pulled over at a roadside lookout, Knights Point to admire boulder-studded stunning views of the deep blue Tasman sea in contrast to lush green vegetation. Named after surveyor Norman McGeorge’s it was the meeting point for road crews working on West Coast road from both directions.
Ten minutes later, we stopped at Ship Creek area, an ancient kahikatea swamp forest to explore with kids. We spent a couple of hours walking the hikes and climbing up the lookout platform for sweeping views of the coastline.
We debated to stop at Haast Visitor Center and decided to give it a try, which turned out to be the right decision. Besides architecturally pleasing buildings situated close to Haast River, it has an impressive collection of exhibits. It was a great place for kids to learn about glaciers.
Highway 6 leaves the coast behind and runs through a pristine world of rainforest, waterfalls, and rushing rivers offering numerous short walks to get intimate with nature. First, we walked to Roaring Billy Falls, a 30-meter cascading waterfall, only 20 minutes walk from the road. The next one was Thunder Creek Falls, an impressive 96-meter tall waterfall tumbling into the Haast River. An easy short walk through temperate rainforest, with thick vegetation, giant ferns, and bright green moss covering almost everything. It was like walking in Jurassic Park.
We jumped to the other side of the river by crossing one-lane “Gates to Haast” Bridge and pulled over for another waterfall, fan-shaped Fantail Falls, almost next to the road. Walk closer to the falls to take a look at the concrete foundations of the water wheel that used to generate energy to power road-making machinery. Though the waterfall is not very impressive, the rock cairn build by visitors lends it a quirkiness.
Up next was Haast Blue Pools. An easy stroll through the old forest to the pools of deep and clear icy glacier-fed water gives a perfect moment of tranquility.
Next came two ridiculously gorgeous glacial lakes – Lake Wanaka and Lake Hawea, before reaching Wanaka and recharging for the next day.
Wanaka – Te Anau (Day 3)
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 the east arm of Lake Wakatipu, before reaching Garston, the most inland town in New Zealand and a great place to buy manuka honey. Driving through the farmlands speckled with cows and sheep we reached Te Anau, a picturesque town and gateway to Fiordland National Park and Milford Sound.
Our third Great Walk, Routeburn trail starts from here and ends at Routeburn Shelter. We had arranged with a company to transfer our car as we enjoyed alpine adventure for the next three days.
Routeburn Shelter – Queenstown (Day 4-6)
Queenstown, a vibrant town carved by glaciers, rivers, and lakes and defined by innovative adventurers. Queenstown, the birthplace of commercial bungy jumping. Queenstown, a town of my dreams!
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 hear 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.
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 jetboat 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. In the evenings, we strolled through the town, savored the food, and soaked up Queenstown’s vibes. Watch Queenstown video to get an idea.
Fully charged, with high spirits we were back at Te Anau to hike 4-day world-famous Milford trail. We made a quick pit stop at Queenstown, to get primed for Christchurch.
Queenstown – Christchurch (Day 7)
We exchanged drive days with hiking days and had to reach Christchurch in one day, a six-hour drive. Ideally, a day at Tekapo would have been great!
We started early today and 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 to climb Mt. 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. Verdant greens gave way to golden hues and mountains started flatting out as we drove towards Christchurch.
We reached Christchurch in the dark of night when every restaurant was closed, cooked our backpacking leftover food at the guesthouse, and slept. The next day was a sobering experience of witnessing the devastating impact of the 2011 earthquake, which left the city broken and silent. On one hand, 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 other hand, murals on cracked walls, art on the construction fences, and container shopping center were examples of human optimism and courage. Christchurch is determined to rebuild it and this time more vibrant and greener.
Our visit came to an end, 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. Time to fly back to Auckland and then to home to plan the next adventure in the Himalayas.
Want to go on another road trip, perhaps closer to the Arctic this time? Read on our road trip circling Iceland on Ring Road.
Do and don’t while driving around South Island
Do – remember it is remote and isolated while on Highway 6
Make sure to fill up gas, snacks, groceries, and download maps.
Do – visit a pharmacy (very important)
Buy baby oil, and ointment to relieve sandflies bite itch. Bites are very itchy for several days! Apply baby oil (or any oil) on all exposed skin. Put on ointment on bites and don’t scratch them ever.
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. Pack layers and rain jackets.
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!
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.