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Road Trip New Zealand: South Island

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Road Trip New Zealand: South Island

New Zealand’s South Island as seen from the Ferry on Cook Straight.

The South Island of New Zealand may have one third the population of the North Island and fewer big cities, restaurants, and public transportation, but what it lacks in people and scads of modern infrastructure it more than makes up for in natural beauty. The South Island, simply put, is spectacular. There’s not a corner you’ll drive around without being awed by some new natural thrill. There are waterfalls, glowworms, mountains, coastal drives and jagged sounds that will blow your mind. And the only way to see it all (in our opinion, anyway) is to pack the car and hit the road, which is exactly what we did. We started on the North Island, which you can read about HERE if you haven’t already, but allow us to pick up where we left off.

The rocky outcroppings of Marlborough Sounds welcome you to the South Island from Cook Straight.

We took the ferry from Wellington to Picton and set off from the small town terminal straight away with plans to hike in Abel Tasman National Park later in the afternoon. We stopped in Nelson a couple hours later to grab some maps and info and such, do a little souvenir browsing at the info center (you know how it is), and found out the hike we wanted to do was several hours farther away than we had originally thought. So we decided en route to head to a closer section of the Coast Track and walked as far as Tinline Bay. As for Nelson, you could easily spend an afternoon if not a day or two in the bright little backpacker town, so if you can, set some time aside to appreciate it’s cafes and such. We didn’t for lack of time (and an encroaching magazine article deadline), but wished we would have.

Tinline Beach on the Coast Track in Abel Tasman National Park.

After the hike, we retraced our steps and freedom camped at an I-Site in Motueka, a small town nearby. It had just enough to appease us: a supermarket, park, well-lit parking lot, cafes, and car repair shops, which was fortunate because the next morning our car wouldn’t start. We paid $65 for a mechanic to look at it, declare that nothing was wrong, and start it back up with no problem. Go figure. Turns out, there was something wrong, but more on that later. As it also turns out, we should have purchased an AA membership (like the U.S.’s AAA membership) for $80 and gotten the van looked at for free, but you live and you learn.

So after a bit of panicking and several hours of waiting (do mechanics enjoy making people wait?), we were a bit behind schedule, but we still made it to Fox River Cave in Poparoa National Park where we walked through an ancient forest and explored the cave with our cameras and headlamps. Of course, the drive there is nothing to gloss over. The west coast coastal drive was sensational with its cliff faces, rocky outcroppings, sandy beaches, and mountainous backdrops. I kid you not, it was all we could do not to pull over every 3 minutes to take a photo of the landscape. So we limited it to every 6 minutes. Would you expect anything less from photographers? If you can manage it, drive along at sunset for a gorgeous sunset.

Don’t forget your headlamp for Fox River Caves. Wellies wouldn’t hurt, either.

The drive on the west coast of the South Island offers stunning scenery.

Franz Josef Glacier and Fox Glacier were next. We were told we were amazingly lucky to have a beautiful, clear, sunny day to view the glaciers. Apparently, the west coast gets over 3 meters (Meters! That’s over 10.5 feet!) of rain a year, so a sunny day is practically a miracle. Actually, nearly our whole trip was miraculously rain-free, but that’s beside the point. In the backpack-friendly little towns you can shell out for an air-drop hike on the glacier if you want, but you can walk to the terminus for free. There is also an abandoned mining tunnel (for eerie afternoon walks) near Franz Josef and a lake where visitors can see glowworms at night (we only saw one in the tunnel). That night we freedom camped at Gillespie Beach, which we highly recommend for sunsets and stargazing.

Franz Josef Glacier

Taking a moment to appreciate nature on the way to Franz Josef Glacier.

Not only can you camp for free at Gillespie Beach, but you’ll be treated to vibrant sunsets, too.

New Zealand’s South Island is the perfect place to stargaze.

The drive to Queenstown the next day was just as lovely as every day previous. Lake Wanaka and Hawea were fantastically blue, The Remarkables, the mountain range outside the city, were, well, remarkable, and the small tourist-centric town was a welcome diversion after basically being out in the middle of nowhere for the last three days. Queenstown is for souvenirs, hiking and adventure tours (Skydiving! White water rafting! Bungy jumping!), so we browsed for the day, enjoyed the waterfront, and relaxed, more or less. There was a Hell Pizza, which had already become our favorite restaurant for vegan pizza in New Zealand, so we were pretty happy campers.

Brilliant blue lakes and jagged peaks welcome you back to civilization as you head to Queenstown.

The Kawarau river outside of Queenstown. Bungy jump from the bridge or just enjoy the scenery.

Which was good because the following day was about as irritating as it gets. We decided to go ahead and make the drive to Milford Sound, which comes highly recommended by brochures, adverts, and visitors all over the place. We should have checked the weather before we went because the Sounds basically have a weather pattern all their own and we essentially drove four hours one way (read: out of the way) to look at fog in the rain. Not cool. So if you go, make sure the weather forecast is clear or there’s really no point. We did stop around Te Anau to explore a bit of the Lord of the Rings filming location for Fangorn Forest and the Dead Marshes on the way there, though, so it wasn’t a total waste (I guess).

Apparently Milford Sound is somewhere behind all that fog. 

About the clearest view we had of the Milford Sound area.

Mount Cook was next on our list. Another one of those places that has its own weather. Beautiful and clear 5 miles away, Mt. Cook was shrouded in cloud and no coaxing from us could lure it out (I’m the mouse whisperer, not the mountain whisperer after all-but that’s another story). You can see floating glaciers on the lake next to it, though, and camping on Lake Pukaki was extraordinarily picturesque, especially while watching the sunset behind the mountains while lounging in a camp chair and strumming away at a ukulele.

The Mount Cook Mountain Range from the west.

Mount Cook may have been in hiding, but the view from across Lake Pukaki was fabulous.

Nothing like a bit of ukulele music while watching the sunset over Lake Pukaki.

This is where our car troubles flared up again. Told you I’d get to that. Our car just decided to turn off as we cruised into Twizel, the town just south of Mount Cook. Just went dead turning off the main road. Scary. So after much fiddling, deliberating, googling, and calling our dads (aren’t dads great?), we came to the conclusion that it was probably the starter. But small towns and Saturdays don’t bode well for car repairs, so Josh prepared himself to basically drive the three hours to Christchurch the next day holding the key in the on position. We even started looking for a tree branch that we could carve to jerry-rig a key-holding contraption, Macgyver style.

Fortunately, after about an hour the key decided to stay put on its own and we made it to the city safely (phew!). Of course, repair shops were still closed (It was Sunday, after all, and this is New Zealand), so we went to the Sunday markets, picked up a uke case and some kettle corn, explored the Botanic Gardens, museums, cafes, you name it (vegan chocolate beet cake at Beat Street Cafe, yummmm). We’d worry about the car tomorrow.

The Christchurch Art Gallery is sweet as on the outside and in.

The city is still rebuilding after the 2011 earthquake.

The ReStart Mall is a great place to grab a quick bite, recaffeinate, or do a bit of shopping. It’s a shipping container mall set up after the 2011 earthquake.

And the next day, while we perused the ReStart Mall, got some more tasty vegan treats at a local health food store, and wandered through the Christchurch Art Gallery (which has blazing fast Wi-Fi in addition to cool art, btw), our car did get fixed. It cost $260 NZD for a new starter and labor, which was actually less than Josh and I both feared (and we didn’t have to pay for parking that day!). And so ended our concern that our car would decide to just turn itself off again while we were driving and we could leave Christchurch in peace.

There was one last thing to do on the South Island before we headed back to the North Island on the ferry: Kayaking in Marlborough Sound. We opted for a full day of it (6 hours) with Sea Kayak Adventures. They gave us all the gear, dropped us off and picked us up, and we cruised the sounds for the day marveling at starfish, stingrays and eagle rays right below our boat, a fur seal napping on the rocks, birds galore, a mountainous landscape surrounding us, and a family of very friendly ducks. Totally worth the price ($100+ NZD). It was the perfect end to our South Island adventure and we were totally wiped for our late night ferry crossing back to Wellington that night after dinner, drinks, and a bit of browsing in Picton. Which, by the way, was a practically empty sailing so we had all the Wi-Fi to ourselves, though we paid for it with a choppy crossing. Didn’t bother us. Rocking boats put me straight to sleep.

Treat yourself to some outdoor adventure with a day of kayaking on the Marlborough Sounds.

Mountains and wildlife abound on the Marlborough Sounds.

But back on topic, if you’re heading to New Zealand and having the North Island/South Island debate with yourself (we think that’s silly; you should just do them both), opt for south if it’s majestic scenery and breathtaking landscapes you’re after. But seriously, just do both. 😉