New Zealand roadtrip itinerary: South Island in two weeks

Two weeks isn't a lot of time to spend on New Zealand's scenic and sprawling South Island, but with four wheels and a tent, we managed to get around many of the most beautiful spots. Here's how.

Planning a world travel can feel like a trial of sacrifice and ruthless prioritisation. With a lifetime on the road one might still only cover a fraction of the possibilities, and so with a single year we had some difficult decisions to make.

One of these was to squeeze our time in New Zealand down to three weeks so that we could fit in Patagonia at the beginning of the its hiking season in October/November. We met people who had spent six months exploring New Zealand and still not seen it all, and so we had a challenge to make optimal use of our limited time.

The first big question was how to split our trip between the north and south islands. While both have plenty of incredible scenery and activities to offer, we decided to focus two thirds of our trip on the mountains, fjords, glaciers and winding coastal roads of the South Island.

I’ve heard many good things about using the hop-on hop-off bus services, but we opted instead for complete freedom and hired a car. With our ever-reliable tent having survived the extreme Patagonian weather we planned to camp most of the way, which ended up saving us a fortune. A note for campers, though: make sure you declare your tent and hiking boots when you enter New Zealand or you could find yourself lumped with a hefty fine.

While our 14 days on the South Island came and went too quickly, we managed to cover plenty of the highlights and left feeling fulfilled. With time short we placed our focus on the Fjordlands, glaciers and the west coast, saving Abel Tasman National Park and the Southern Scenic Route at the extreme ends of the island for another trip.

The following is a recap of our route, with some information on costs included – at the time of writing, the exchange rate is slightly less than two NZ dollars to the pound.

Day one: starting out in Christchurch

Moncks Bay, Christchurch
Moncks Bay, Christchurch

We pivoted our circular roadtrip route from Christchurch, the biggest city on the South Island. An early morning flight from Wellington one day before our car hire collection afforded us some time to look around the city and make some preparations for the road.

Our arrival in Christchurch was made extra special as we were met at the airport by Carly, an old school friend of Lisa’s who she had not seen for 13 years. Carly took us along Moncks Bay for a fancy ocean-view breakfast, and then gave us a generous package of supplies to help us through our roadtrip – gas stove, chairs, crisps, kiwi fruits, Jelly Tip chocolate, Tim Tams, Pineapple Lumps, and a bottle of New Zealand red.

With the temperature rising in the afternoon we took a slow stroll around the city, which still bears the scars of the 2011 earthquake. Cracked buildings and flat open spaces linger as a tender reminder of the horrific event, with pop-up buildings, storage-container shopping malls and cardboard cathedrals signs of a city slowly rebuilding.

We stayed at Kiwi Basecamp, one of Christchurch’s cheaper hostels at $29 for a dorm bed – an absolute bargain with free breakfast, excellent kitchen facilities and a good social vibe all included.

Day two: a drive to Mount Cook

Our camping spot at White Horse Hill, Mount Cook
Our camping spot at White Horse Hill, Mount Cook

The morning of our first full day on the South Island was dominated by admin and preparation, as we picked up our wheels (a cosy little Suzuki Swift from Jucy Car Rentals) and hit the budget supermarket PaknSave for road supplies. Fully equipped for camp cooking, we stocked up on plenty of pasta, sauce, beans, eggs, veggies and car snacks.

Our aim was to make it to a campsite near Mount Cook some four-and-a-half hours away. For the first couple of hours the scenery was fairly mundane, but that changed once we passed a small town called Geraldine and turned inland towards the lake and mountain regions.

We stopped for a breather and a drink at Tekapo, a beautiful little lake town that is famed for its regulation of street lighting to protect the night skies; with weak ozone covering, the area is adorned with spectacular starscapes.

We continued on the road and made it to White Horse Hill campground not long before sundown. This is one of many government-operated campsites in New Zealand, providing basic toilet and cooking area facilities for a small fee, in this case $13 per person per night. Overlooked by the snowy peak of Mount Cook and surrounded by jagged mountains, the views from the camping area were among the best we enjoyed on the whole trip.

That night we set alarms for the small hours and crept outside to glimpse some of those afore-mentioned starscapes. With a clear night and dim new moon conditions were perfect, and Lisa caught some awesome photos.

Day three: walking the Hooker Valley Track

The Hooker Valley Track
The Hooker Valley Track

There are lots of options for hiking around the Mount Cook area, but the most popular is a gentle three-hour, ten-kilometre return walk along the Hooker Valley Track. The route winds along the valley over swinging bridges and stony rivers, culminating at an icy-blue glacier lake at the foot of Mount Cook.

The ease of this walk was a pleasant change of pace for us after tackling the Tongariro Crossing on the North Island a week earlier, and some tough multi-day hiking in Patagonia before that. We were back at camp in time to chill for a few hours, make some dinner and soak in the stars one more time.

Day four: sights on Queenstown

Purple lupins at Lake Ohau
Purple lupins at Lake Ohau

After waving goodbye to White Horse Hill, we set off for one of our many slow-burned days of driving. Among many photo-stops and drink breaks en route to Queenstown we took a short detour to Lake Ohau for the view over the purple lupins across the water.

We made it to Queenstown by mid-afternoon and set up for two nights at Queenstown Lakeview Holiday Park, one of the more expensive campsites we encountered at $50 per couple per night, but well equipped and centrally located.

We had ensured we would pass through Queenstown on a Saturday so we could sample some of its celebrated nightlife. We started out at 1876, probably the cheapest joint in town with $10 cocktails and $5 beers, and crawled a couple of other bars before winding up at Harry’s Pool Bar for a couple of craft beers.

Day five: cruising Lake Wakatipu

Queenstown cafés on Lake Wakatipu
Queenstown cafés on Lake Wakatipu

Our full day in Queenstown began with a slow morning on account of the previous night’s activities, and after a lazy late morning wander into the centre we headed for our obligatory Fergburger. This is the town’s famous gourmet burger shack, with an inventive menu that attracts queues of punters often stretching to the end of the street and around the corner. We timed our visit to avoid peak mayhem, but still waited half an hour before we were served.

In the end it lived up to the hype, but the three-and-a-quarter pounds of meat (I had the Mr. Big Stuff) rendered me almost immobile for a good couple of hours.

Our hangovers and meat comas shaped the afternoon’s activities, as we quickly discarded our earlier idea of taking the luge ride at the top of the hill and instead went for a spontaneous Million Dollar Cruise on Lake Wakatipu for a very reasonable $39 each. This meant we could relax and enjoy the views for a couple of hours while our food digested, and learn about the history of Queenstown thanks to a friendly and informative guide.

Day six: the road to the Fjordlands

Driving past Lake Te Anau
Driving past Lake Te Anau

After a quiet Sunday night at the campsite we set off bright and early towards the Fjordlands, a four-hour drive that we extended over six to fit in some scenery stops. After a petrol fill in Te Anau town we stopped for lunch at Lake Te Anau, and then again for the mountain view across the plains at Knobs Flat.

Our pitch in the Fjordlands for two nights was at Gunn’s Camp, a secluded little family-run spot an hour’s drive from Milford Sound. For $20 a night per person it came with a generator-powered kitchen, decent hot showers and a quaint setting along a glacial run-off stream. Right by our tent pitch the stream dipped into a water hole deep enough for swimming if you can handle the cold. I couldn’t, and emerged pretty damn quickly after an ungainly splash.

The site also has a ‘museum’, which I put in inverted commas as it’s more of a family archive of artefacts and newspaper clippings, but as a free extra for guests it’s worth a peruse.

Day seven: Milford Sound at dawn

Milford Sound
Milford Sound

Many years ago when I first began to think about travelling the world, Milford Sound was at the top of my bucket list. I had seen a picture taken by a friend of mine who had visited, and thought it looked like the most amazing place in the world. This was always going to be one of the highlights for me, not just of the roadtrip but our entire journey.

Milford Sound is not actually a sound but a fjord, a dramatic valley carved by a retreating glacier thousands of years ago. These waters yawning out to the Tasman Sea are flanked by towering hills, among them the 1,692m Mitre Peak, the most photographed mountain in New Zealand.

We arrived in the still of dawn at high tide, with the calm shimmering waters casting a perfect reflection of the grassy peaks. After taking in this scene for a good hour we walked around to the port for our pre-booked cruise with Jucy, the same company we used for our car rental.

We booked the cruise using the Bookme website, which is a great way for travellers to access cheap activities in New Zealand. For an amazing $40 each, we enjoyed a perfect two-hour Milford Sound Cruise, with a breakfast cake and drinks thrown in as well (you get the cheap price by taking the 9am ride). To top it off the creatures came out to play – seals frolicked, and we caught a sight of the endangered yellow-eyed penguin.

With several hours of the day left to enjoy, we stopped by at the Chasm to see the cascading waterfalls on our return drive, before making for the Divide, the starting point of the world-renowned Routeburn Track. We briefly considered taking on the full two-day trail, but as we were enjoying the steady pace we settled for the three-hour return walk up to Key Summit at the route’s beginning. Our reward at the top was a beautiful panoramic view of the Fjordland mountains and alpine lakes.

Day eight: puzzling in Wanaka

Puzzling World, Wanaka
Puzzling World, Wanaka

The next day we were back on the road for a full day’s driving, heading back past Queenstown and up towards its little sister town Wanaka. North of Queenstown the road climbed steeply and wound through green hill-lands before we rocked up on the shores of Lake Wanaka and pitched at the Top 10 campsite. This chain has sites across the South Island and the facilities are always decent, plus not too expensive at $20 per person per night.

One of Wanaka’s quirkier activities is Puzzling World, which describes itself as a ‘wonderful world of weirdness’. The $20 entry fee bought us a good three hours of entertainment as we muddled through the labyrinth of optical illusions and puzzles, and then took on the outdoor multi-level maze. I walked something like six kilometres before I managed to complete it.

Day nine: walking, wine and #thatwanakatree

The famous Wanaka Tree
The famous Wanaka Tree

We rose early for our full day in Wanaka to spend the morning on one of the nearby walking trails. Spoilt for choice, we drove a few minutes to the west of the town for the Diamond Lake and Rocky Mountain walks. We were tempted by Roys Peak, but that would have taken the full day and we wanted to save some time for a winery.

The walk followed a similar mould to our previous excursions at Mount Cook and Key Summit, with a gentle return walk crowned with a beautiful view at the end. This time, the prize was a panorama of Lake Wanaka and the surrounding waters and mountains.

Done and dusted by just after lunch, we sauntered into Rippon winery at 2pm for a tasting, provided at no cost but with tips welcome. We walked away merry with a bottle of Gewürztraminer for the evening. Before that, though, we went for a quick swim in the lake by the famous Wanaka tree.

Back at camp, the wine led to a few beers with some guys in the tent next to ours, before we discovered a liking for late-night trampolining…

Day ten: over Haast Pass to glacier country

The Blue Pools at Haast Pass
The Blue Pools at Haast Pass

Whatever remained of our morning cobwebs after a hearty camp breakfast was blown asunder by the drive from Wanaka to Haast – the most beautiful section of road in our entire trip, and that’s saying something.

The road began with a lengthy stretch along the western shore of Lake Hawea, before snaking back to Lake Wanaka and up towards Haast Pass, punctuated along the way by several lookout points. At Haast Pass we stopped to take the 30-minute return walk across swinging bridges to the Blue Pools. You will struggle to find clearer, more tranquil waters anywhere in the world.

The small town of Haast had been our intended stop for the night, but having made good time and finding it a little bleak, we took the spontaneous decision to press on to Fox Glacier. The signs warning “no petrol for 200km” as we left Haast hinted at the tranquil landscape that lay ahead.

After a stop-off at Ship Creek for a stroll and some photos, we made it to the village in time to pitch our tent at the Top 10 site (this time $45 for the two of us for the night) and walk to the glacier viewing point at low evening light. As we had very recently visited the Southern Patagonian Ice Field it was difficult not to draw unfavourable comparisons, but nonetheless it was a spectacular view.

Day eleven: an encounter with kiwis

A giant eel at the National Kiwi Centre
A giant eel at the National Kiwi Centre

After a night’s sleep interrupted by middle-of-the-night sirens (an alert for the local voluntary emergency services), the next morning we checked out a different perspective of Fox Glacier from Peak View Lookout at the other end of the village, which we actually preferred to the close-up.

A busy day ahead, the natural progression was then to continue up the coastal road to Franz Josef Glacier, a bigger and more dramatic mass of ice. The return walk to the viewing point was a bit longer at 90 minutes, but worth it for the reward of a close-range view.

Leaving the glaciers behind, we returned to the road, which swung right out to the ocean front for the two-and-a-half-hour drive to Hokitika. We arrived in the self-styled “cool little town” by early afternoon, ample time to visit the National Kiwi Centre. Not only did we meet a pair of New Zealand’s famed flightless birds, but also other unique native wildlife such as the ancient Tuatara (220 million years old!) and giant eels, which we fed and stroked. Not bad for the $24 entry fee.

That night we found our favourite camping spot of the roadtrip, Seaview Lodge – a former psychiatric clinic converted into a large campsite and lodging complex. Among the cheapest at $15 per person per night, the tent pitches were set against a fabulous ocean view (a particularly good sunset spot), and the large building facilities were well fitted and stocked for all our camping needs. There was even free unlimited wifi – we didn’t find that anywhere else.

Day twelve: rocks and pancakes

Pancake Rocks, Punakaiki
Pancake Rocks, Punakaiki

With the stars aligning in our favour high tide peaked at 11am, perfect timing for our visit to the Pancake Rocks and Blowholes at Punakaiki, an hour’s drive north of Hokitika. These rock formations – which draw their name from the pancake-like appearance – were formed 30 million years ago from fragments of dead marine creatures and plants compressed beneath huge water pressure.

We would have been more than content with this impressive sight alone, but looking further out to sea we got an unexpected bonus – dolphins! Hector’s dolphins, native to the area, are the smallest and rarest marine dolphins in the world; and sure enough, we spied a little group of them splashing about in the water.

To round off the morning’s activities it was time for some real pancakes in Pancake Rocks Café over the road. We both ordered a stack with bacon, maple syrup and cream; it was so huge we didn’t need to eat again until the evening.

Thoroughly satisfied, we set off for a long afternoon drive for our penultimate roadtrip destination and some well-earned rest and relaxation: Hanmer Springs.

Day thirteen: R&R at Hanmer Springs

Winding down at the thermal pools, Hanmer Springs
Winding down at the thermal pools, Hanmer Springs

For both nights at Hanmer Springs we camped at Alpine Adventure Holiday Park, a pleasant spot a couple of kilometres out of town, and another cheap one at $16 per person per night. It would have been perfect if it wasn’t for the swarms of sandflies! We got through a ton of insect repellent here.

We spent our full day at Hanmer Springs Thermal Pools & Spa after snapping up discount tickets on Bookme for $14 each (usual price $24). I can’t think of a better way we could have concluded the trip than by soaking in hot pools for a day, with the odd splash down the water slide to cool off.

That night we savoured a final timely treat, as New Zealand’s only supermoon of 2017 appeared above the tree of our campsite at midnight.

Day fourteen: return to Christchurch

Back in Christchurch at Jucy Snooze hostel
Back in Christchurch at Jucy Snooze hostel

Alas, all good things must come to an end, and our roadtrip was no different. We made the final journey back to Christchurch (the blandest of the lot) and dealt with the necessary admin – cleaning and returning the car, checking into our hostel, and readying ourselves for the next day’s flight to Fiji.

For our final night in New Zealand we stayed at Jucy’s airport hostel, Jucy Snooze, at the higher end of our budget at $36 each, but perfectly located and – most importantly – fitted with big comfy pod beds after twelve nights of camping.

Two weeks wasn’t enough, and I hope we make it back to the South Island one day for unfinished business; but if we don’t, we have an incredible fortnight to remember.


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