Driving around New Zealand's South Island: A 10 day itinerary.

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As part of my final time in New Zealand last year, I did a wee road trip around its south island. Planning said trip felt a little bit daunting (so much to see, yet such an expensive country to travel!) but I found great comfort in looking at other travel blogger’s sharing their itineraries; finding inspiration and possible routes. By sharing this I hope to do the same for some other lucky soul planning a trip around this beautiful island, where the landscapes range from glaciers to tropical rainforest.

First things first, let’s set a few ground rules.

The key rule: Tone it down!

I think we can all recognise the dilemma. You want to see as much as you possibly can along the way and thus squeeze your itinerary with activities and sights. Fastforward to a few days in where you may well just stop the car, roll down the window and snap a few photos because it all just seems underwhelming somehow.

I reckon rule number one is to not over plan. Rather scale it down. With itineraries in general, break it down to what you really want to see and leave room for spontaneousity.

Plan to be spontaneous.

Now this sounds very counterproductive, but I think no more than two ‘sights’ or activities ought to be planned for each day. This is especially true for my fellow introverts, you will need time simply for chilling, to do some journalling over a steaming cup of coffee somewhere.

… Another factor to consider is of course the weather. Say you really want to visit Glacier country but a hail storm prevents you to do so; it would be a pretty neat thing to be able to wait out and try again later. Or that the current tides prohibits access to some beach at any given time.

As for now: queue some good guilty pleasures to use for your carpool karaoke & off we go!

Travelling New Zealand’s South Island: A 10 day itinerary

Day 1: Christchurch

I arrived into Christchurch, the start (and end!) point for my car adventures, via the TranzAlpine Railway from Greymouth. Christchurch is the largest town on the south island and has an interesting exterior to it. After the 2011 earthquakes, the city has had to reinvent itself. Expect incredible street art and innovative urban design meeting old Victorian style buildings in one endearing mishmash.

Other than picking up a rental car, this is also a good place to stock up on food and camp gear. Do note that Kiwiland is infamous for their high number of op shops and you can easily find good camping equipment by browsing around a little.

Suggested reading: Vegan on the Road: Tips & Tricks to prevent hanger.

Campsite: Winchester Motor Camp & Camping ($10), near Geraldine.

Day 2: Lake Tekapo + Oamaru

After a rather unsuccessful first night in the tent (i.e. I opted to sleep in the backseat of the car!) I set off towards Lake Tekapo, infamous for its vibrant blue hue. This March morning is particularly cold and windy, so I have coffee by one of the panoramic windows overlooking the lake before continuing onwards.
The area around Lake Tekapo is known to have very little air pollution, and this makes it great for star gazing activities. Like, check out this photo that my chum Clara took upon her visit.

As the caffeine wears off, I make it to Oamaru in the afternoon. I stretch the legs out with a wee stroll around its Victorian Prestinct, where there are plenty of quirky coffee shops. There is also the Steampunk HQ museum nearby that looks well intriguing from outside; unfortunately the place has already closed for the day upon my arrival. On their website they describe it as “set in an alternate, futuristic version of 19th century Victorian England steam powered devices – the ‘world gone mad’ as Victorian people may have imagined it.”

Campsite: Riverside Haven Holiday Park & Camp ($13pp), near Oamaru


Day 3: Moeraki Boulders & Dunedin

The following morning’s destination is one of those one might want to double check the visiting tides with; as the high water levels will undoubtedly cover most of these alien round lime stone formations that are scattered across Moeraki Beach.

Next up (or shall I say down? Some steep hills to be rolled down here!) is Dunedin, “New Zealand’s Edinburgh”. Here one can climb the world’s steepest residental street (Baldwin Street), enjoy a coffee at quirky coffeeshop Morning Magpie (as you will notice, ‘quirky’ and ‘coffee’ are the reoccuring themes in this itinerary!) or enjoy a swim in the outdoors salt water pool in suburb St Clair. I do all of this and feel like a newborn as I continue towards the Catlins and Nugget Point Lighthouse in time for sunset.

Hostel: Thomas’s Catlin Lodge & Camp Ground ($30pp), Owaka

Day 4: The Catlins, The Lost Gypsy Gallery & Slope Point.

So remember what I said about quirky and coffee being the reoccuring themes? Day 4 hits the jackpot on this, as I randomly pass the green folk bus that is the home of The Lost Gypsy Gallery. After failed plans to see Cathedral Cave (due to low tide being around 4am and weather wildly wet!), I know that I have to stop by this ‘organic mechanics’ museum along the way. It sure brightens my morning. Click here to see why.

With the car stereo blasting, I continue down to Slope Point - the most southern point of the southern island. The winds are crazy here, even forcing the trees to grow sideways. Craving some comforting company, I spend the rest of the day in the car heading towards the west of the island where my Punakaiki peers have already set up camp.

Campsite: Possum Lodge ($17), Manapouri

Day 5: Milford Sound: mitre peak, the chasm & key summit

A ferry ride around Milford Sound seem to be a must when it comes to planning your travels around the south island. And by all means, this place is absolutely stunning! I reckon these waters are best experienced ON the water, and I splurge on a cruise. The company I go with, called Mitre Peak Cruises, offer a circa 2 hour cruise for the price of $70. A fair deal I reckon, as the ferry was not too cramped leaving plenty of space for everyone to move around the boat freely.

By recommendation of a fellow swede working at the company, I stop by The Chasm on my drive away from Milford. In the afternoon I do the Key Summit hike (circa 3hrs return) which is part of one of NZ Great Walks: The Routeburn Track.

Campsite: Possum Lodge ($17)

Day 6: Queenstown & fergburger

I have grand plans for visiting Queenstown, including the Tiki Trail track. However, finding a suitable parking space turns out to be a project more difficult than anticipated, and being a bit too stressed out by the city buzz I continue on through the many wineyards towards Wanaka.

That is AFTER trying out one of the infamous burgers from busy, busy Fergburger of course. (They do a vegan one!) If you eat it down by the near jetty, you will have a whole herd of admiring ducks surronding you, anticipating you drop some stuffing of the paper wrap.

Campsite: Wanaka Lakeview Holiday Park ($20), Wanaka

Day 7: Wanaka, Cinema Paradiso & Wanaka Beerworks

Other than hosting the world famous tree growing in the middle of the lake, Wanaka is also home to quirky (!!!) Cinema Paradiso that I have been longing to visit. Not only because I have not been to the movies in well over six months at this stage, I am also a massive fan of independent cinemas and this one is no exception. With its VW’s and cosy couches it makes for a very memorable experience. Have a closer look here.

Before leaving I also spend time in small scale brewery Wanaka Beerworks — which for $15 includes a mini tour of the brewing process and the history of the place. To finish, they offer a choose-your-own-6 pack! Can I get an amen??

Campsite: Lake Hawea Holiday Park ($20)

Day 8: Glacier Country & lake matheson

Because of the tropical storms that have been causing havoc across the country in the weeks prior, Fox Glacier is unfortunately inaccessible at my time of visit. Having already been to Franz Josef (which they say is a lot more accessible) back in January, so I cannot tell you which one to prioritise if only finding the time to visit one. Both townships surrounding the glaciers seem really cute though.

I also did a hike around Lake Matheson, where you can find the Mirror Lakes among all the fern. If one is really lucky, you can catch Mount Cook reflecting in the lake. On a particularily clear and still day, so quite unlike the one I visited upon, yet it is a pretty neat reflection even without Mt Cook — or what do you think?

Hostel: Montrose Franz Josef ($34)

Day 9: Hokitika & Punakaiki

Forget about Australia’s Great Ocean Road, the stretch of road between Greymouth and Punakaiki is where the real action is at and you should definitely try to fit it in to your itinerary!

Hokitika is home to its self titled gorge, yet another place with flourecent blue waters. It’s a nice little walk from the parking lot, but do wear repellent to keep all those sand flies at bay. (Pun intended.) Hokitika is also the perfect location for anyone wishing to explore jade stones a bit further.

Punakaiki (where I spent a good four months of my visa!) is set in Paparoa NP. Here you will find the Pancake Rocks, a group of weather beaten lime stones that have been shaped into looking like stacks of pancakes. There is also tonnes gorgeous beaches stretching out on either side, the rainforest trekk of Truman Track or one can do parts of the Inland Pack Track (perhaps out to the Ballroom Overhang), amongst other things. Stay a while and enjoy the beauty this piece of paradise has to offer.

Accommodation: There are two hostels in little Puna; one located just by the beach and the other in the rainforest. I have visited the two and think they both make for an exceptional experience.
Or of course the Punakaiki Beach Camp, located literally as its called.

Day 10: Arthurs Pass to Christchurch

Leaving the tropical paradise behind for colder latitudes as you cross over Arthurs Pass. I stop by Castle Hill’s ginormous lime stone boulders, where you can roam around pretty much as you wish. “A boulderer’s wet dream” as I captioned them on instagram.

After returning the car to the rental agency in Christchurch the following morning, I go for brunch at Raw Sugar Cafe and then to see Greta Gerwig’s film Lady Bird at yet another quirky (<— last use, I promise!) independent film house namely Alice Cinema & Film Specialits. All while waiting for Clara to pick me up to continue the rest of our road trippin’ adventures…

Hostel: UrbaNZ ($35), Christchurch CBD

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Useful resources

Kiwi Campers - an app that allows you to download maps of surrounding areas; you can then filter out “free showers”, “self contained campsites”, “petrol stations” and so on.
Made by campers, for campers.

Some posts I used for inspiration to create my itinerary:

If you are in need of more travel inspiration, make sure to browse my New Zealand page - where you will find the stories behind the destinations & more photos.