NZ Road Trip: South of the South Island

Having navigated the beautiful, and ever changing, scenery of the west coast we were excited to explore the South of the South Island. An region famous for cool towns, mountains, lakes and 1.2million hectares of National Park.

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Arriving in Wanaka, surrounded by lakes and the Southern Alps, we soon decided this was our favourite town so far. Setting up camp we took the evening to stroll down to the lakeside, where we found the famous Wanaka Tree. A lonely tree that grows from the shallows, adding an unusual foreground to the landscape photos taken around the lake, it is part of a photography route around the area and one of the most instagramed spots in the country. There were plenty of people out enjoying the sunshine by the lake with all manner of activities as well as the beach. By the time we returned from dinner most of the crowds were gone and all that remained was a beautiful dusky light on the water.

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The following day it was an early start as we headed off to hike up Roy’s Peak. This popular DOC track winds up one of the mountains sat on the edge of Lake Wanaka and the views are spectacular. Be warned though this is no walk in the park, a 5-6hr hike of which at least 3 hours will be unrelenting ascent.

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The route begins climbing through grassy farmland and soon turns dry and dusty as you zig zag up. There is a famous photo spot at the end of a ridge where you can get amazing panoramas but on from here is definitely worth the extra push. Passing around the other side of the hill the views turn from grassy hills, lakes and mountains to rugged snow-capped peaks and glaciers of Mt Aspiring national park in the distance. At the top, a radio mast marks the peak and from here the views are take your breath away incredible!

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We enjoyed lunch at the top, digesting the scenery around us and taking many, many photos before our descent. Making our way back down was almost as tough as the way up, we definitely felt the burn! 100% worth it though as the hike was a real highlight of the trip for me (Guys blisters might disagree though)!

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The rest of the day was pretty leisurely making our way to Queenstown, passing the grassy slopes of the ski hills here, Cardrona and Coronet Peak. The quaint village of Arrowtown was also on route and is famous for its old town charm and sweet shop. Before heading to the campsite we took a detour through Queenstown to Glenorchy. The scenic Tommy Thompson Drive is well worth the extra mileage, passing along the edge of Lake Wakatipu in glorious sunshine. We had a little break on the lakes edge in Glenorchy before making our way back to the adventure capital of New Zealand.

Adrenaline was the name of the game in Queenstown, first stop the Luge. Getting to the Skyline gondola early is key to avoiding queues up the hill and for the luge. Even just heading up for the view is worth it with the town and lake below and the Remarkables mountains jutting up into the sky beyond. The luge has two runs, the scenic first run is for training but after that it’s all about the red run. Flying down at top speed on what is essentially a plastic sledge on wheels. With some steep drops, hairpins and chicanes, made for an exciting race between Guy and I. Even rolling out my best racing line couldn’t stop him on the straights though! If you want you can even take in the great views as you fly around the course, but it’s probably safer to save this for the chairlift back up!

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Back down at lake level we wandered town and the lakefront, stopping at the infamous Fergburger for lunch. Controversially, we didn’t think it was the best burger in the world as many claim, but it was certainly up there on the list! It did however win the longest queue we have stood in for a burger…and after a huge burger what better way to spend the afternoon than being thrown around a winding river in a jet boat? Exactly, none, so off we went to Shotover Canyon.

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Shotover canyon is a beautiful and gravelly shallow river cutting through a sheer sided canyon. The jet boats can skim through just 7cm of water as it skips along the surface, propelling water out and under at 390L/s, making the boat and location the perfect combination. We were swung through the bends, chucked around 360 spins and buzzed the cliffs less than a metre from the bow. It was an intense experience and quite scary at times but we loved it! Getting the seats at the front was a great shout from Guy and although a bit soggy we certainly got the best thrill.

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We finished up our visit to Queenstown in slightly more gentile fashion enjoying the most delicious ice cream from Patagonia by the lake. After dinner we sampled some local craft beers from the Atlas Beer Cafe. My delicious pilsner, aptly named Powder Day, was the perfect partner for a sunset by the lake.

Leaving the excitement of Queenstown behind we ventured further south to Milford Sound. On the way we drove into the huge glacial valleys, stopping at the mirror lakes (not quite living up to their name because of the wind) before starting to wind our way toward the homer tunnel. As we arrived, the forecast rain began and it became a very wet adventure! At the tunnel we had to wait for the cars to come through from the other direction so we took the time to have a look around. There was a mischievous and rather bedraggled kea, surveying the traffic for food or to see what it could pull off. We were pretty excited to meet these curious mountain parrots.

Finally making it to the ferry we hopped on board and set off into the beautiful Milford Sound. Unfortunately with the weather the views were stifled by fog so we couldn’t get the full scale of things, but on the plus side there were waterfalls cascading from every cliff and the eerie cloud coupled with the isolation of the sounds made for quite the atmosphere. We braved the top deck and the elements, and made the most of the trip. Guy even stood out on deck as the captain dipped the bow under the waterfall. We stopped at the underwater observatory, which was a welcome escape from the rain. The fjords are almost black in colour owing to a layer of fresh water, run off from the forests, on top of salt water blocking out the light. This darkness creates deep water conditions in the shallows. Species like black coral, New Zealand black eyes and rass live just 10m down which was cool to see before we braced for the elements again. As we headed to our cabin for the evening the waterfalls on the slopes of the valley had doubled in number and all in full flow for us.

Following a night at Gunn’s camp, sheltered from the rain in an ancient cabin left by the tunnel builders, we drove out to Manapouri and Doubtful sound. It was still wet as we left the shore on our trip, making our way first across Lake Manapouri and then up and over the Wilmot Pass by bus. As we reached Doubtful sound the weather cleared up and the ethereal mist rolled out to a beautiful day. With the waterfalls still in full flow from the day before it was an impressive trip, the many arms of the sound create beautiful inlets, along with forest and hanging valleys above. It was like cruising through Jurassic Park! The water here was almost black because of the mix of fresh and salt water and created wonderful reflections. At the mouth of the sound we met the Tasman Sea where we found a seal colony on the rocks, Guy even spotted an Albatross flying over. From the Tasman Sea it was all the way back to dry land, passing all the waterfalls and valleys once more and feeling like a tiny speck in the world, it’s hard to convey the beauty of the sounds with any justifying description but you will just have to get out there and see it yourself!

Back on dry land we brought in the New Year on an Alpaca farm in a lovely little bach. Talking over some highlights of our first year in New Zealand we realised quite how many adventures we’ve had. There are many more to come too as we were only half way through the roadtrip!

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