The Great South Island Road Trip

In April, after a great deal of persuasion, my parents decided us to visit us in New Zealand. It was up to us to plan a road trip of the South Island that included as many of the best bits as possible, and squeeze it all into 10 days. We decided that the best way to do this would be to hire a campervan, plot an approximate route, and take it from there. We didn’t want every minute planned out, we wanted to be able to take our time and stay at a place for a little longer if we loved it. At the same time, we also knew that there were some specific activities that we wanted to do, and we would have to book them in advance. So after a lot of emails, guidebooks and conversations with helpful Southlanders, we finally came up with a basic plan for the South Island road trip of a lifetime. What followed was 10 days of pure Kiwi experiences, a trip that finally convinced my dad that New Zealand is not just sheep, mountains and rings.

Scroll to the bottom of the page to see an interactive route map of our trip, or click here to see a bigger version.

The Trip

First Stop: Dunedin

My parents arrived in Dunedin in the evening, after a long drive down from Christchurch. Exhausted, they were keen to get some rest. I had taken the liberty of booking a room at a small backpackers near the center of town. I assumed that they would be happy with “no frills” accommodation, and enjoy roughing it as Hicksy and I had been doing ourselves. This was a big mistake. The backpackers that I had booked was by no means the worst I have ever seen, but it was… minimalist. The bathrooms were communal and the place was small, old and smelly. Still, Mama Kirk put on a brave face and hoisted her luggage up the narrow creaky stairs and into her room. We heard giggles coming from outside the window, and discovered a hot-tub full of girls in the garden below. Papa Kirk didn’t think the accommodation was so bad. Mom clearly wasn’t happy though, and when she pulled back the covers to discover a family of fleas camping in the bed, it was the last straw. They were booked in to a hotel less than an hour later.

The 'Rents

Mama Kirk and Papa Kirk (happier without the fleas)

The next day we showed my folks the best that Dunedin had to offer. We did a tour of the Speights Brewery (our second), and drove along the peninsula to the Albatross Colony, before heading out for supper. The Speights tour was outstanding, and I would recommend it to anyone visiting Dunedin! Don’t bother with the Cadbury’s tour though, it’s highly overrated and is little more than a long walk to the gift shop.

Otago Peninsula

The Peninsula

Next Stop: Te Anau & Doubtful Sound

The next morning we all piled in to the campervan and began the 3hr drive to Te Anau. The trip had finally started! The Camper, while being a 5-sleeper, was cosy and rattled like mad when we were driving. We soon got used to it, our reflexes improving as we dodged/caught the falling books/dishes/laptops as they burst out of the cupboards. We arrived in Te Anau in the late afternoon, plugged the camper into the campsite and set off to explore the lake. Kiwi campsites are outstanding, they’re clean, well maintained and have everything you could possibly need. That night we barbequed under the stars and slept relatively soundly despite the snoring of Papa Kirk.

The following morning we were up at sparrow’s fart to catch a boat across Lake Manapouri followed by a bus over the Wilmot Pass to Doubtful Sound. The journey to the sound really makes it clear just how remote you are, it was quite exciting! Once we got to Doubtful Sound we boarded the Fiordland Navigator for an overnight cruise along the length of the sound.

Getting ready to go kayaking

Hicksy geared up to kayak

This was comfortably one of the best things we’ve done in New Zealand. It was absolutely incredible! The first day was very wet and windy creating dramatic waterfalls that cascaded down every surface available. We had a great time messing around in single-man kayaks in the drizzle, working up a substantial appetite.

I need to take a moment her to tell you about the dinner. First off, it was Hicksy’s favourite food: Buffet. And not just any old buffet, but roast lamb, beef, chicken, veggies…. an array of salads and sauces and sides….it was heaven. And I haven’t even started on the desert buffet!

The next morning we woke to clear blue skies, still water and breathtaking views. We were wowed further when a front blew in creating a rainbow right across the sound. I will always remember the overwhelming peace that I felt, standing on deck, cup of hot chocolate in hand, engulfed by the silence of the sound.

We slowly made our way back to the docking station and started the long journey back to Te Anau (which was a much more interesting trip now that the rain had cleared!).

Go to doubtful sound slideshow

Next Stop: Milford Sound

We then headed to Milford Sound where we were greeted by more clear skies! I know I’m harping on about the weather, but it really is quite unusual for the area, which gets about 6,813 mm of rain a year. The journey to Milford is an experience in itself, with beautiful scenery and short walks as well as an interesting drive through the Homer Tunnel. We plugged the camper into another campsite and got an early night. What luxury this was in comparison to the last time Hicksy and I came to Milford Sound! No 3 nights of sleeping in our tiny Ford Festiva while rain thunders down relentlessly outside, oh no! This was bliss! Well, if bliss includes swarms of sandflies anyway.

The next morning Dad, Hicksy and I paddled twin kayaks the entire length of the sound, while Mom opted for the scenic cruise. It took us a leisurely 5 hours to paddle the 25km to the Tasman Sea, taking in albatrosses, sea lions (or seals? I never can tell) and going through waterfalls along the way. We went with Roscos Kayaks and I would recommend them in a heartbeat. Our guide, Burto, was brilliant. He was full of knowledge, great fun and didn’t mind Hicksy’s half-hearted paddling in their twin kayak. We got back to the campsite for what we thought would be a relaxing afternoon, but soon discovered that we had to be in Queenstown the next day for a wine tour. Back to the camper!

milford sound slideshow

Next Stop: Queenstown

So back to the camper we rushed, and off to Queenstown we rode!  The next morning we were picked up by Appellation Central Wine Tours, for a private tour of the Central Otago wine region. Now, I’m not much of a wine drinker, but this was superb. The guide really knew his stuff, and could answer all of Dad’s questions about tannins and vines and other winey things. And Dad is a wine snob connoisseur.

Great Fermentations

Grape Fermentations

The vineyards were also beautiful, in fact Queenstown was beautiful, picturesque in its Autumn colours. We had another day in Qtown, so we filled it with jet boating, luging and me demolishing Hicksy at mini-golf. We also treated ourselves to the famous Bluff oysters, which were de-licious and introduced Mom and Dad to the legendary Ferg Burgers! We didn’t do any of the super-extreme activities as Hicksy and I had already done them on a previous visit (which will be blogged about at some point) and Mom and Dad weren’t really interested in chucking themselves off a cliff while attached to an elastic band.

From Queenstown we headed to Wanaka. We went through Arrowtown, gorgeous with its wide streets under a leafy canopy of oranges, reds and browns. As it was Hicksy’s birthday we made a slight detour to the Rob Roy Glacier, a small hike that he’d been wanting to do for a while. Dad’s Achilles tendon was giving him trouble (he’d snapped it skiing) so Mom, Hicksy and I climbed to the glacier. Well, it was more of a steep walk than a climb I suppose. It’s a fantastic hike to do, with a great deal of variety in scenery and exciting rockfall-risk areas where signs warned us against stopping for fear of being squished. Glacial water is delicious too.

Rob Roy Slideshow

Next Stop: The Glaciers

We now entered the final stages of the trip: the drive up the West Coast to the Fox and Franz Joseph glaciers.

This was an interesting drive, going from the awesome views at Lake Hawea and Blue Pools and continuing into Pukekura, population: 2. The two people who live in Pukekura are Pete and Justine, who run the Puke Pub where one can sample the supposedly delicious Possum Pies. Even Hicksy didn’t try those. They also have a bizarre museum out back, where you can see real possums (future pies?), eels and other weird stuff. We wandered around the museum for a while, until it got a bit creepy and we moved on to the glaciers.

At this point the weather finally started to turn, hitting us with the wind and rain that is more typical of the dense rainforesty area. We got to the glaciers in the late afternoon and decided to treat ourselves to a relaxing evening in the thermal pools.

The next day Hicksy woke up early to explore the Fox Glacier, and later on we went with Mom to the Franz Joseph. I would have loved to have done a glacier hike or helicoptered over them, but unfortunately time and weather were against us so we had to make do with the walk to the base. I’m not sure we got to experience it in all it’s glory, but it was still an awe-inspiring sight.

Lake Hawea

Lake Hawea

Final Stop: Christchurch

Time was rapidly running out. We drove up the West Coast, crossed the famous Arthur’s Pass and finally arrived in Christchurch, where we stayed at our final campsite. My parents said it had been one of their best holidays ever, which was a relief, as I had hoped they would fall in love with New Zealand as I had. I was amazed at how well we all got along, 4 adults in a confined space initially seemed mad. It’s hard not to be permanently happy though, when every day your breath is taken away by the beauty of your surroundings.

We had our last delicious meal of steak and mussels before Mom and Dad flew home, we boarded our bus, and it was back to beans on toast for Hicksy and I.


The Route:

Click on the blue arrows for details.

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10 thoughts on “The Great South Island Road Trip

  1. Once again want to say well done. Your a natural at story telling. Me and claudette are enjoying your blogs. This one was especially appreciated by me as i’ve lived in lake hawea, qtown, te anau and the west coast, you described it brilliantly. It is a breathtaking part of the world barely touched by man and where there is still places with no carbon footprint.
    Keep up the good work.
    Til we meet again me and claudette send our love.

    • Jacs says:

      Ah chur Maaar :) Your comments mean a lot, especially since you’ve lived in all those places! They really were mind-blowingly beautiful, especially in the Autumn. Give my love to Claudy and all the rest at the casino. Oh ya, and you get meeee one white teeeee!

  2. Dan says:

    Well written Jacqui, love it. Maybe we could do something while im in Auckland worthy of a mention in the next blog haha

  3. Emory Cook says:

    My friends and I toured the South Island late last year and your post brought back a flood of wonderful memories that I made while road-tripping around that incredible land. Thanks for your photos and thoughts! I can’t wait to return to New Zealand soon.

  4. Sara Childs says:

    Happy memories of a beautiful country, visited August 2007. Well done, really enjoyed the tour.

  5. katinka says:

    Great posts, but what I like best is the formatting, the inserts of slideshows and so on. It’s given me some great ideas for formatting. Now if I can just figure out how the hell to do it myself :)

  6. […] Queenstown feels like it has everything. You can skydive, ski, snowboard, race luges, bungy jump, jet boat, hang-glide, white-water raft or even go on a 4-wheeler Lord of the Rings tour if it takes your fancy. If there’s an extreme activity you can think of, you can almost be sure it exists in Queenstown. And if thrills aren’t your thing, there are cruises, wine tours, walks and a variety of other activities for the more serene soul, many of which we enjoyed with my parents on the Great South Island Road Trip. […]

  7. […] bungee jumped the highest jump in New Zealand, watched the sun rise over peaks dusted with snow in Doubtful Sound but nothing compares to the Thrill of the Grill.  And if I’m the Meat Messiah, Australia is […]

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