Roadtrip through the South Island of New Zealand

What can I tell you about New Zealand?

New Zealand is a place full of such epic and majestic beauty, that your heart is bursting every moment of every day. It’s place that creates such a swelling under the breast, that one feels from the instant they disembark the plane that they will never want to leave. And then one spends the rest of their pauses scheming how they might stay.

My time in New Zealand was beyond refreshing; it was a reminder that the most beautiful things on earth are earthly things themselves. It was a reminder that more joy can be had enduring and overcoming long walks that make you cry than a thousand digital interactions. It was a return to slow exploration of places by car and on foot, of sharing small moments with new people, of feasting on the most tremendous scenery I’ve ever seen.

Diamond Lake New Zealand top of black diamond walk

In short, it was really great.

We started our trip by flying into Queenstown on the south island and driving to Wanaka for New Year’s Eve. We didn’t spend long in the city and took our first epic walk at Lake Diamond, climbing up to the top of Rocky Mountain. It was so windy, it turned Patrick’s hat nearly inside out and blew mine right off my head.

Susannah and Pat in New Zealand

The views were incredible: a fantastic view of the surrounding mountains and the lake. We’d come to know the mountain-sided lake as standard in New Zealand, but it never lost its magic, and certainly the first time these Texas-bred-eyes saw it, I was filled with delight.

We spent several days at Lake Sylvan, a fantastic campground at the end of a 25 kilometer unsealed road, where they filmed parts of Lord of the Rings. While there, we spent a day hiking up to Routeburn Falls and back. 8.8 kilometers and about 500 meters up in elevation each way left my inexperienced legs pretty wobbly, but the views at the top were unlike anything I’ve ever seen. The valley between the two enormous ridges of dinosaur-like mountains is perfectly flat.

Routeburn Falls Track

And the waterfall up there – oh my. New Zealand is a land crossed, cradled, and carved by water. We had to cross streams in the car where it was tumbling over the road (by design). We stepped gingerly on stones through rushing rivers. We swam in freezing lakes, the colour of ice blue wolf eyes. The water is everywhere. Happily most of it is very clean and drinkable. Nearly all the campsites we went to proclaimed “The water is generally good here. You may wish to treat it.”

Lake Sylvan suspension bridge

We drove down to Te Anu and delighted in the drive down – the intimidating stone walls and mountains here were shrouded in low-hanging clouds and mist. At one point we had to drive through a mountain in a tunnel that was a one lane hole bored into the stone, raw, dark and dripping wet, descending into darkness.

The Drive to Milford Sound

The Mildford sound passage did not disappoint. The fjords are stunning, mist-shrouded giants rising up out of the calm seas. Water seems to be everywhere in every form, the sea winding inland amongst the feet of the rocks, the waterfalls cascading down their shoulders, and the clouds hung as beards on their rock faces.

Milford Sound boat ride

Milford is a tricky place to get to. You can only drive north to it from Milford, but you can actually walk there from the east. There is no road this way, but there is an epic hiking trail called The Routeburn Track. It’s a great walk, and we had walked a day hike on the other side 8 kilometers in and back out again a week previous. Walking the track had been such an enjoyable experience, we decided to walk in from this western side near Milford sound. We were lucky to snag a campsite at the second campground walking in from the west, Lake Makenzie. It was great to walk in and spend the night and gave us a quick taste of what it’s like to do the Great Walks.

We contemplated going further south, possibly even the furthest south point on the island, but we were keen to see the glaciers and perhaps even some of the Abel Tasman park, so we decided to turn north again. We had a great night at the Henry Creek campsite and made friends with a lovely German couple just ending their trip.

waterfall in new zealand


As we headed north and west, we ran into quite a bit of rain. 180 millimeters was predicted for one night, so we opted to stay at a hostel our German friends had recommended. It had a hot tub and for $18/night per person, we could use all their facilities and camp in the car. This ended up being a nice solution because staying in a hostel can mean sharing a room with 6 other people who are all going to sleep and getting up at different hours of the night and day, whereas staying in your own car is a bit more like having your own room.

gray beach west coast of New Zealand

The poor weather hung around, but it didn’t deter us from taking on the Roberts Point track to see the Franz Josef glacier. I’m not too proud to admit this was the second hike I had a total meltdown on. But let me give myself some credit by saying that the walk is rated for “advanced trampers” only, a qualification I did not possess at the time of the walk attempt (and one could argue from the tears that flowed on the trip, I still do not!)… The path is largely unformed, often wet or slippery and is long. We had to jump across stepping stones in a rushing, rain-flooded river to even begin the hike. Before you think I heroically took this in stride and followed Pat’s confident leaps, allow me to confess I spent several minutes glued to the first stepping stone, focus darting all around the next step more than a meter away, trying my best to avoid thinking about what it would look like if I missed and fell in the rushing water. In fact, I was so hesitant that when I finally did jump and landed safely on the other side, the gathering group of watching tourists behind me cheered. * eye roll * Thanks very much.

This walk was challenging also because it had several portions where the trail led you up stones that had water pouring over them. It wasn’t exactly a waterfall, but it was like walking up a small stream, and sections of it were quite steep requiring hands and feet. One particularly wet section we had to climb up very small steps almost like a rock ladder and I couldn’t imagine how I would get back down, particularly as we knew more rain was coming and we should get back quickly to avoid it.

Sure that we weren’t far from the end of the hike and the glacier look out point, Pat was urging me onward, but overwhelmed by the prospect of climbing up more streams and facing even higher waters on the way back in the rain, I crumbled. One of the older tourists who had cheered me on at the first crossing had just passed us as I started to cry. He paused 10 meters up the track and motioned for us to follow him enthusiastically. Could this be more embarrassing? An 80 year old tourist in khaki shorts, tall socks, and sneakers was out hiking me. But his encouragement worked. Not wanting to be outdone, I pulled it together and we hiked the last 30 minutes, which included a stunning suspension bridge and of course the up close view of the Franz Josef glacier.

Susannah at the Franz Josef glacier

Further north, we got to check out the famous pancake rocks and were delighted to find out that the cave nearby was not only open at night but also had glowworms! We snuck over from our campsite to check out the pancake rocks site at night because the tide was high at 11pm. When the tide is high, it shoots through the carved out passages and creates a geyser type effect. It was far more delightful under a full moon with water rushing below our feet and over our heads.

Pancake rocks New Zealand

We also stopped by the cave on the way back. The entrance was muddy with recent rains, but inside was mostly dry, aside from the normal drips. There was a path through the inside and a huge, silent cavern inside. We turned off our headlamps and were astounding to find a star-like array of green, glowing dots. Each glow worm has a bioluminescent dot on its bum. Taken all together, they create a beautiful pattern on cave roofs. We were really pleased to see them here as they are a “must do” feature of New Zealand, but tours through caves are often quite expensive, so we’d thought about not doing it.

Continuing up the coast, we spent a few days in the Abel Tasman area and went on Pat’s very first horse ride. We rode in Takaka along the beach, with the mountains in the background. It was so beautiful, I’m not sure how we’ll be able to top it for his next ride!

horse riding in takaka on the beach

I wish we’d had more time to explore the north of the south island. Its near-tropical beauty would have been fun to explore via boat, but we had to jump on the ferry to head to the north island. Lucky for us, there is a fantastic wine region nearby, called Blenheim. And as luck would have it, one of my favourite work colleagues was also on his sabbatical in New Zealand and in the area! We met up for an afternoon of wine tasting and reminiscing.

I’ve rushed through so much of our time on the south island here. There are so many photos and adventures I couldn’t detail, but perhaps I’ll come back and write more about it one day. 

6 thoughts on “Roadtrip through the South Island of New Zealand

  1. You have described it so beautifully. I saw views in NZ that made me cry and rub my eyes because I couldn’t believe what I was seeing was real. It is truly breath taking, I just kept thinking-why are you all over here? How could you leave this magical kingdom? The bottom half of the South Is. is the only bit I haven’t done yet but one day one day.

    • Isn’t is spectacular? I also do not understand how anyone could leave and not come back. Like, srsly what are they thinking?? 🙂 Bottom half of the south is defo worth a return trip!

  2. I think you are a brave adventurer, Susannah. And a talented, descriptive writer. This could very well be an article straight out of a travel mag! This sounds like a trip of a lifetime. What wonderful memories you will have when you’re old and gray! You inspire me!

  3. Your writing is an inspiration ! Thank you for sharing the stories of your adventures. For a foreigner like me, these place-names have no geographical reference. If you could post a marked – up map, or a link to one, it would help us see the geographical context of your stories.

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