New Zealand’s South Island

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Kia ora! Māori - hello!

If there ever was a landscape edition of the old classic PC game ‘The Sims’, then a world identical to New Zealand’s South Island would surely be your end objective. Pristine turquoise lakes, snow capped mountains, fjords, flora, fauna, picturesque beaches and sweeping vistas are all suspiciously placed at a convenient distance apart. It’s the definition of beauty. 

This was my fourth time back to the country and on every trip, the following itinerary was always a certainty in my planning. It's become a ritual of sorts and is still just as exciting as the first time I took this route. I’ll show you what you can fit in just a short trip but of course, having more time here would be bliss. Months. Years even?

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Day 1 - Christchurch

Let’s be honest here, at the time of writing this, the scars are still very much healing after the devastating earthquake in February 2011. I had been before and it was heartbreaking to see the aftermath first hand. When I arrived a few months after the quake, the entire city centre was closed off, with offices and shops left exactly as they were the moment the earthquake hit as people ran for their lives. Six years on, there's still a huge amount of construction going on. It absolutely still has the Christchurch charm and spirit but you’ll need to be a little patient whilst work is finished. It’s definitely worth spending a night here as there are plenty of amazing eats and coffee houses. So, be sure to get out, experience them and stir the economy pot. 

Day 2 - Christchurch to Tekapo

This might be the only lie in you’re going to get, so take your time, enjoy a nice breakfast and then head to the rental depot (near the airport) to pick up your trusty steed. 

I used my go-to guys Maui (maui-rentals.com/nz/en) and unlike previous trips, I got myself a beast that I can stand up in. It had a shower, WC, kitchen… and all inside! All things I appreciate more after many years of being slightly less than comfortable. 

Once the van has been picked up, it’s an easy three hour drive to the first beauty spot; Lake Tekapo.

The pint-sized town of Lake Tekapo is situated on the banks of a stunning turquoise lake of the same name.

 
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There’s plenty to do in this area so it’s worth spending a night here. As with everywhere on the South Island, there’s everything from freedom camping, paid powered/unpowered campsites for your tent/van or hotels, motels and backpacker hostels.

The main campsite towards the end of the town is a great spot and just a stones throw away, there’s the Tekapo Hot Springs! They have three tiered pools, with temperatures varying from 36 - 40 degrees Celsius. Tekapo is the first stop where you’ll be surrounded by the snow capped mountains of the Southern Alps so, it’s a perfect place to chill out and take in the views. You can even take a star gazing tour while bathing in the springs. Onsite there’s also a seasonal ice rink, tube park and day spa. (tekaposprings.co.nz/).

 
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As Tekapo is situated in an International Dark Sky Reserve, this is an incredible place to study the stars. I took a tour with Earth & Sky (earthandsky.co.nz) which takes place at the observatory up at the top of Mt John. I wasn’t so lucky with the weather as some broken cloud decided to roll in and say hello. However, it was amazing to see, and look through the telescopes to learn about all things astronomy. Even for a space geek like myself, I found it hugely insightful. If you’re very very lucky, you might have clear weather and a display from the southern auroras! 

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Day 3 - Tekapo & Pukaki 

We all know that sometimes it’s a huge effort to get up for it but, sunrise here is a must. The best spot is down by the Church of the Good Shepherd. The early start will mean you'll beat the crowds and it’ll most likely be just yourself and a few other half asleep photographers waiting for that golden light to appear from behind the mountains. 

 
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Once you’ve got that postcard shot, it’s a quick 20 minute drive towards Lake Pukaki. Grab some breakfast to go from Tekapo as you really need to sit and take your time to appreciate it. It’s possibly one of my favourite spots I’ve ever been. It's just so peaceful and unspoilt so chill out lakeside and enjoy the views of the vast alpine lake that leads towards New Zealand’s tallest mountain, Aoraki (Mount Cook). 

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From there you can head towards the Aoraki/Mount Cook village. It’s about a 50 minute drive around the lake. I’d originally planned to do the Hooker Valley Hike which is an easy 3 hour return walk and takes you to Hooker Lake. The views of the mountains and Mueller Glacier looked amazing… in my research. Unfortunately, I had damaged my knee the week before (running for a bus?!). I can't personally vouch for this hike but I've heard so many good things about it's worth me mentioning here. Instead, I opted for a slightly different way to see this area.. by ski plane! I flew with mtcookskiplanes.com and, well, I’ll let the photos do the talking. It made my list of life highlights. 

Day 4 - Pukaki to Wanaka

I'd chosen to spend the night at the Glentanner Holiday Park just outside of the Aoraki Village so I could be up for the morning’s sunrise. 

The campsite is located next to the river flats between the lake and the mountains. At sunrise, after a 10 minute walk out to the flats where you no longer see manmade structures, you will notice how eerily silent it is. 

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The next stop, Lake Wanaka, is about a 2.5 hour drive so it’s good to spend the morning around Lake Pukaki with the aim of getting to Wanaka early afternoon. As with any drive in NZ, factor in some time for taking photos along the way. 

 
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The town of Wanaka is situated right on the lake and has sublime views in all directions. It’s a good base if you have a few days as the area give access to some 750km of walking and mountain bike trails. You also have Mt Aspiring National park near by if you’re interested in pristine rivers, waterfalls, native forests and mountains. 

There are also amazing ski fields and countless thrill seeker activities to keep you occupied. If you fancy a chilled day, there are vineyards and golf courses around the lake. Something for everyone!

 
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Day 5 - Wanaka to Queenstown

Just an hour away is Wanaka’s younger, crazy drunk brother, Queenstown is. It also shares untold beauty with Wanaka but it is a little bigger and a hot spot for young travellers with a solid nightlife scene that will likely break you. There are great places to eat, ski fields a plenty and action and adrenaline kicks in abundance. On a previous trip I had taken on the Shotover Canyon Swing, launching myself off a 109m cliff. Couldn't reccomend it enough!

 
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No trip to QT would be complete without a trip up to the Queenstown skyline. A gondola takes you 450 metres above QT and will provide you with a jaw dropping view. Better still, there’s a 800 metre luge track you can race down. Pretty much the most amount of fun you can have in one sitting. 

 
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Probably my favourite stretch of road in NZ is between Queenstown and Glenorchy as it winds itself alongside Lake Wakatipu. Glenorchy itself is a very small town so you won’t need too much time there. Long enough for a coffee and a slice. 

 
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Day 6 - Queenstown to Moeraki Boulders

Moeraki Boulders is a 3hr20min straight drive. As it’s on the east coast, sunrise is what you’re after here so there’s no rush. It gives you a bit of time to explore more of Queenstown or do what I did and head to Arrowtown. It’s a charming historic gold mining town, just 20 minutes away from Queenstown. 

 
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Then the drive to Moeraki is pretty special. 

 
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Day 7 - Moeraki to Christchurch

The Moeraki Boulders are large and spherical boulders lying along a stretch of Koekohe beach. Local Māori legends explained the boulders as the remains of eel baskets, calabashes, and kumara washed ashore from the wreck of Arai-te-uru, a large sailing canoe. This legend tells of the rocky shoals that extend seaward from Shag Point as being the petrified hull of this wreck and a nearby rocky promontory as being the body of the canoe's captain.

 
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Sunrises have always been kind to me here and on this morning, I was also provided with some beautiful golden light. From there, Katiki Point Lighthouse (aka Moeraki Lighthouse) is a great wildlife spot! New Zealand fur seals and Yellow-eyed penguins use the rocky platforms to rest.

 
 
 
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It’s around four hours to get back to Christchurch from Moeraki. 

As mentioned previously, having a decent amount of time here would be much better, but I hope this post gives a good indication of just how much you can fit in as well as ideas for your own adventures here! 

Ka kite ano!

Ed Norton