Everyone should travel to New Zealand’s South Island, truly a land of marvels. In this post all the highlights, things to do, and places to visit for a memorable road trip.
I’ve already provided some general comments about tourism in New Zealand and information on the organisation of this trip in the entry about the North Island, so here I’ll jump straight to the itinerary. Also because there’s much to say, as we spent more time in the South Island, about 18 days:
ABEL TASMAN COAST TRACK
The Abel Tasman Circuit, situated on the north-west side of the south island, is also one of the nine great walks, considered the best trails in the country. The peculiarity of this trail is that it runs along the coast, through lush forests and golden beaches. It’s a serpentine and hilly path of continuous ups and downs, with several nice viewpoints on the many coves, and fun passages through flat damp sands when the tide is low.
It’s pretty cool to see all the boats aground with low tides, and it shortens the path consistently. The timing of the tides can be checked on the chart provided at the entrance of the park for smart planning. It’s also possible to take a few detours slightly inland to check some water pools with natural slides, and rivers. A nice surprise for us was to spot an isolated fur seal close to one of the camping area. We would have seen many later in the trip, but the unexpected has always a special charm.
Worth to mention is also the campsites, all at the beach, which is something a bit special for trekkers, normally used to more alpine grounds, distant from the mesmerizing sound of the waves. Careful to sand flies bites though, quite annoying.
The Abel Tasman Track can be covered in 3 to 5 days, depending on time and planning. We went for a 3 days trek, as we were on a tight schedule we could not complete it all. There are few small huts here and there (no food), but most of the trekkers bring their own tent and food. Everything can be bought or hired in the towns on the way to the national park, like Motueka, where we spent the night after arriving from Wellington.
As the camping sites are all on the beach, some people just decide to reach them by boat and spend a few days out in nature. Locals apparently love to do this, we met a couple of families. There are some water taxi companies as well, running back and forth the whole track and stopping by some pickup points. These are useful for people who don’t want to walk for days to visit Abel Tasman Park, but also for trekkers to go back at the starting point without having to walk back through the same path. No real need to book them, it should be possible to get last minute rides, with some patience. On the contrary, it’s best to book the camping sites well in advance, places are limited especially in high season. For all information and bookings check here.
SECOND HIGHLIGHT: KAIKOURA, SWIMMING WITH DOLPHINS
The Kaikoura Peninsula is definitely my second highlight of the whole trip, after the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. I just loved this place, above all its rich marine life. For me, it was all new, and I looked at everything filled with marvel. There’s a very nourishing ocean here, which has become the permanent home to sperm whales, killer whales, big pods of playful dusky dolphins, huge colonies of seals, lots of birds and more. So, again, the choice of activities and things to do is very hard to make if time is limited, and it also depends on the weather, as not every day this wild ocean can be navigated. Furthermore, some activities are in strong demand, so booking in advance is a must.
We didn’t, so when we tried to book the dolphins tour, which means going out at sea and swim among hundreds of dusky dolphins, we found out it was fully booked for the time we were there, same for other activities. The only thing we could do was to put ourselves in a waiting list, and book whale watching tour instead. Still interesting, but basically you go out on a boat to see the tail of a sperm whale coming out of the water. Mmm… less active than what we had in mind.
So the following day we go for this, and we find out it was cancelled on the account of bad weather conditions. Now the disappointment started growing, but right then, like a few seconds after receiving the news, I got a phone call from the dolphin people to tell me three spots were available for the following morning. Yes, some luck! Not enough for all of us, unfortunately, as we were a group of six. I was one of the three to go and it’s been a truly magnificent experience.
I mean, not one, not ten… hundreds of dolphins passing through in the open ocean. I am not sure, but I don’t think something similar is possible anywhere else in the world. In between seasickness (damn long waves!) and the constant excitement, it was an unforgettable time. Dusky dolphins are curious and sometimes they come closer and check you out for few seconds, and they are really fun to watch, they keep jumping out of the water with incredibly choreographic swirls and twirls. The icing on the cake, on our way back we intercepted some rare pilot whales passing by the area. Yayyy! 🙂
There aren’t only sea-related activities in Kaikoura. First of all, the local cuisine, obviously seafood based, is something to try. Then a beautiful coastal walk allows to explore the area and visit the colony of seals and birds, there are thousands of them. Nice stuff!
THE ROAD TO MOUNT COOK: LAKES AND STARS
When it comes to roads to travel, the segment between Kaikoura and Mount Cook is one of the best I have seen, so many beautiful green landscapes, far away peaks, green valleys… and sheep, so many sheep. In particular, the part that passes by lakes Tekapo and Pukaki is stunning. With more time it would have been worth visiting the area properly. The one thing I would have loved to do is a night tour to the Mt John observatory, to get a good peek at the unique starred sky above Tekapo. Instead, I only managed to go for a couple of night walks: the stars were so many and bright I could take photos with my poor photographic equipment. Beyond imagination.
The panoramic road to reach Mount Cook’s Village runs along the Pukaki lake and continues on for another hour or so. We slept at a backpackers’ in this little, peaceful corner of the world. Early in the morning, we set off for a day hike at higher altitudes, with blasting views of Mount Cook, lakes, tongues of ice and waterfalls. The path is almost disappointingly easy up to the first viewpoint, then it gets more serious, and fun. One option, which we also didn’t have the time to do, is to camp at the end of this trail, where there is an isolated red hut, and admire, with some luck, a beautiful dawn.
GOOD VIBES AND CANYONING IN WANAKA
Wanaka didn’t make it to my three highlights of choice for this trip just because it was too much of a short visit, and because I didn’t do anything “new” as such. However, I have little doubt if I had to go and live for a while in New Zealand, Wanaka would be the place. I just had one of those good vibes feeling, not necessarily with a reason. The options for outdoor activities are endless, both for nature lovers and adrenaline junkies, but it is a little smaller, quieter, and in my opinion nicer than Queenstown, which is known all over the world for the same reasons.
For me, however, it was one day of resting after the long drives, walking around town, re-organising my stuff etc.. while my travel companions split up: two went for a short hike with Lake Wanaka view, two went for a mountain bike ride around the lake. They all came back quite enthusiastic. The following day we went all together for a canyoning, which was booked well in advance.
Canyoning, or similar type of activities, is very expensive in New Zealand. I am talking about €200 or more versus the about €60 you would pay in France, or Italy just to give an example, for no less fun, adventure or beauty. Still, it’s something we wanted to do at least once in NZ, which is a country rich of beautiful canyons. And rightly so, there was no disappointment, it was a fun half day in a deep green canyon with lots of jumps, slides, and abseiling, the whole package. I must say particularly nice guides too.
THIRD HIGHLIGHT: THE ROUTEBURN TRACK
Routeburn Track or Milford Track, this is the question. We did our research and thought really carefully about which one to choose for the final part of our trip. The fact is they’re both part of the nine great walks, they both start from Queenstown, and they both lead to Milford Sound, our final destination. However, they follow two very different trails: Routeburn is a higher, more alpine route that goes around north; Milford runs lower, through the rainforest (although there is a high pass), and goes around south. A good dilemma, and one that doesn’t lack internet discussions over which one is the best. Well, I don’t know which one is the best, as we could do only one, the Routeburn.
We choose it on the account of the type of trekkers we are, we prefer alpine routes, but also because it is one day shorter than Milford on paper, which allowed us to add the hike at Mount Cook Village in the itinerary. Hopefully, one day I’ll go and tackle the Milford Track as well, but the Routeburn was great: lush green valleys, high passes with views on snowy peaks, quiet corners around rivers with green-turquoise waters, a lot of waterfalls, beautifully coloured alpine lakes, an enchanting fairytale-like forest towards the end, amazingly starred nights. It’s a trail to savour from beginning to end, especially if all three days are blessed with clear skies.
As usual, huts or campsites need to be booked well in advance on account of the limited places. Transportation can be organised from Queenstown to the departing point very easily, and the trek exits right at a bus stop with rides towards Milford Sound. The track last 3 days and 2 nights. Unlike for the Abel Tasman, this time we slept in huts, but still food can’t be found on the trail and needs to be brought along.
The hospitality at the huts is something special, that I’ve never seen before. The hut wardens do entertain their guests with stories and games, really they are like professionals: we had an incredible and most unexpected fun. Only for this reason, if within budget, I would recommend sleeping in huts on this track.
A SPECIAL ENCOUNTER AT MILFORD SOUND
Milford Sound is a famous spot, a must see, the place to visit in New Zealand’s south island, and a perfect conclusion for our trip. The fjord is truly spectacular, with steep mountains on the side, with walls elevating up to 1,000 m., and a lot of waterfalls. By all means, a boat trip, as touristic as it is, as many tours depart daily from Queenstown, is a must do, possibly with one of the smaller boats. However, I must say this is not my best memory from this site.
There weren’t many options to spend the night, only one in fact. From this hotel\hostel, a short walk takes on the shores of the fjord. So, in the evening, and in the absence of anything else to do, we decided to go and have a last look.
It was about sunset time, and there was only one other person in the area beside us. There we were, silence around, contemplating the steep, mighty walls of the fjord hiding the horizon, when we suddenly heard a strange noise coming from the water, it sounded as if the water was boiling. We got closer, curious, and we realised it was fish, lots of them, flapping and jumping in distress very close to the shore, where the water is less deep.
Then we saw a fin, just for a second, and another one, a little further, and we heard another sound, not completely familiar but quite so. It was air being pushed out a blowhole, echoing in the silence of the Milford.
The fish were trying a desperate escape from the well-organised hunt of a bottlenose dolphins pod. Impossible to understand how many they were, but what a spectacle. For about half an hour we remained there, amazed, staring at the work of nature, in such faraway corner of the world, while the sun slowly went down and dusk took the shadows away.
Such a surprise, really a special encounter, a shared and memorable moment, and a final gift to us from New Zealand. The holiday was over, the following day we returned to Queenstown, we had our final party night; yet, nothing beats dolphins!
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